Tamales Acapulco and the Original Community Organizers Behind Oakland Street Food

Tamales Acapulco
You can’t miss the street food vendors on the sidewalk on International Blvd in Fruitvale. The fruit carts with peeled and cubed tropical fruits stacked in neat quart containers that go out to customers with a squeeze of lime and chile. There are tamales, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, warm drinks with chocolate, corn and cinnamon, pupusas and bacon wrapped hot dogs on the weekends. While these street vendors seem like an integral part of Fruitvale, many people don’t know about the journey it took for them to be there.

Tamales Acapulco is one of those vendors, tucked behind the parking lot of El Charro Market on Fruitvale Ave and E 15th. The owner, Teresa Mondragon, was among the first group of street food vendors here some 18 years ago. It was her cohort of about 25 vendors, lead by a fierce organizer still working in the community that legalized street vending in the area, setting a foundation for mobile food legislation for the city at large.

“I used to make and sell street food in Mexico, so when I first came here I immediately started doing that and there was no one else selling tamales on the street at that time,” said Señora Tere. “We would sell them out of a Lucky’s shopping cart, and we were always a little scared because we were doing it illegally.”

Emilia Otero, now owner of commercial kitchen La Placita, was approached by some of the first vendors asking for help with legalizing their businesses. A community organizer who had recently moved from LA to be with her grown daughter in Oakland, the need resonated with her— not just to help protect vendors, but to bring healthier food options into the community (like fruit carts).

“This group, they were amazing, if I gave them 24 hours notice they dropped everything. I would have meetings with lawyers, a nutritional group in Berkeley or city hall and they would always be there,” she said.

Emilia Otero with a photo of the first association of street food vendors in Fruitvale.
Emilia Otero with a photo of the first association of street food vendors in Fruitvale.
The group formed the first street vendors association here, and eventually worked with local politicians and the health department to legalize vendors in certain parts of East Oakland in 2001. It was one of the first municipal ordinances on street food vending in the country. Otero then took on infrastructure challenges, like renting a commercial kitchen and providing business guidance. She bypassed $9,000 quotes from California factories and on a trip to Mexico convinced the Governor of Jalisco to help her build Mexican-made pushcarts for an affordable price (of $500). She still organizes for mobile food legislation, helps vendors with their businesses and operates the commercial kitchen La Placita, which supports vendors from all different backgrounds who sell in and outside of Fruitvale.

“My goal was to legalize these businesses, but my dream was to expand these types of businesses. Because you can help so many people, you can bring them out of poverty, and it can work in any country in the world,” said Otero.

The city’s policy on mobile food vending has slowly evolved but been largely restrictive, murky, and cost-prohibitive. Certain districts allow vendors on private property, but outside of that area vendors are greatly restricted on where they are allowed to sell, the hours, and to operating alongside other vendors, forming what are called “pods.” This month there is a City Council hearing scheduled to review a new comprehensive mobile food vending program that should provide more opportunities for vendors (and more options for eaters!) At the last hearing business owners lined up to share how their mobile businesses allowed them to create jobs, put their kids through college, and share their food cultures.

To experience a good tamal, head to Tamales Acapulco. Señora Tere said the children of some of her first clients are still regulars and it’s these customer relationships that have sustained her business for almost two decades. She offers a Guatemalan tamal wrapped in banana leaf with a much softer masa, and Mexican tamales wrapped in corn husks. There is a vegetarian version with cheese and rajas, chicken, and I love the pork made with a salsa roja. She also offers pupusas, tortas, warm drinks like atole and champurrado, and is planning to start making breakfast tacos with freshly made tortillas soon. Best to go in the morning, as tamales tend to run out by the afternoon.