Obelisco in Fruitvale: Leticia Chavez channels comfort foods from life on the ranch

Pozole OaklandThis past week has been a sad one for Oakland and I’ve been craving comfort food. The other day inside Berkeley Bowl I even paused in the bulk aisle when overcome by a craving for mashed potatoes, with a butter pat on top and freshly cracked pepper like something I never eat and definitely out of a Sizzler’s commercial. But mostly comfort food is the food made by my friends and family: biscuits (aunt Pat’s are the best), my sister’s pesto— always a trusty side to our fresh crab or roast chicken, my boyfriend’s breakfasts emerging from the oven to temper my hangover. Obelisco’s pozole is always something I think of in cold or gloomy times, but until last week I hadn’t actually met the chef and owner.

Her name is Leticia Chavez, she’s funny, warm and has held down this Fruitvale restaurant for almost ten years now. Leticia is from the Puerto Vallarta area, and she grew up working in her family’s restaurant and eating food straight from el rancho.

“I was raised in a small place and my dad had a ranch, so the quality of the ingredients were always good. The first time I tried a hamburger in the United States…” she made a face and waved her hand as if avoiding a bad smell.

After arriving to the Bay she actually opened a skincare business, but was called back to cooking by her disappointment with the variety of Mexican food in the area. “I kept hearing people talk about how greasy and unhealthy Mexican food is,” she said. “A lot of people here never travel to Mexico, so they image our cuisine as limited to tacos and burritos. But Mexican food can be diverse, and there’s a wide range of cuisine from one part of the country to the other.”

So she opened her own place in 2007, sourcing Niman Ranch meats and Mary’s organic chicken, and organic corn which is sent to a mill in San Leandro just for her masa. The handmade tortillas are a warm yellow and thick. Not all her other ingredients are organic due to cost constraints.

My favorite on the menu is the pozole, which is available in red, green and white. (You can read more about it in this story I wrote a while ago for SFWeekly). The white, which can be brightened with a fiery side of habanero chile, is emblematic of Leticia’s food. “It doesn’t always have to be spicy,” she said. “I like cooking with just enough so people can taste all the flavors and add more if they want.”

Besides the pozole, the albondigas (a stew with meatballs), is straight from her mom’s recipe collection (“that’s a mom dish for sure,” I said and we both giggled). And while there are daily specials, the secret is to come on Wednesdays when she always makes something different, usually regional dishes like pipian, moles, borrego, or barbacoa. There’s beer on draft, agua frescas, and usually a dairy free coconut flan.

Leticia says in 2017 there will be a new dinner menu, and I expect there to be some comfort dishes on that menu too.

(BTW for those of you who have been around, Obelisco was previously named Taco Grill and located on the other side of the Fruitvale Village.)