Leo Oblea, like many other restauranteurs, had always dreamed of owning his own business. And like many other restaurateurs, he and his brother-in-law and business partner, Victor Guzman, were just waiting for the right moment to strike out on their own.
The push to open their own business, unfortunately, came from the Trump administration.
That's because both Oblea and Guzman are DACA recipients. Oblea's family left Jalisco to live in Hollister when he was just 2 years old. Guzman's parents brought him from Aguascalientes to Pittsburg at age 13. Under DACA, both of them secured work permits. Oblea worked as the executive chef at a retirement home in Rockridge, and Guzman was a manager at a Verizon store.
But in September 2017, the Trump administration announced plans to end DACA. Both were unable to renew their work permits, forcing them to leave their jobs.
"When they announced that they were rescinding the DACA program, I was driving to work," Guzman recalled. "Honestly ... I cried. I worked for a living in the shadows working as an undocumented young adult, and going from that to being able to actually work legally, it was such a relief. I would show up to work with pride."
"Why would the government give us a taste, a sample, of what being an American is like, and then just take it away?"
With no option to get a job legally, Oblea and Guzman pooled their savings, drained their retirement accounts, and took out a loan. They opened a truck called La Santa Torta in April 2018, with Oblea as the chef and Guzman running the business side of things. "It was kind of like our last resort," Guzman said.
Though Oblea had always wanted to own a restaurant, it was Guzman who came up with the idea for La Santa Torta. He wanted to showcase a side of Mexican cuisine that isn't readily available at many other trucks in the Bay Area.
So Oblea started making birria, a meat stew with roots in Jalisco, using his grandmother's recipe. For Oblea and Guzman, birria is a celebratory food. Both grew up eating platters of birria at weddings, birthdays, and baptisms, usually made with goat meat. At La Santa Torta, Oblea substitutes beef for the goat and serves the birria in crisp, cheesy tacos stained a reddish-orange color from the consomé, or broth, that develops during the birria cooking process. It's a more modern take on birria, which is gaining traction in Los Angeles but is still relatively rare in the Bay Area. As soon as La Santa Torta started serving birria, business blew up.
Beef birria is the specialty at La Santa Torta, and most days it's the only meat you'll find on the menu. It's a departure from the typical taco truck fare, Oblea acknowledged, and sometimes, customers are disappointed when they realize the truck doesn't serve burritos or tacos with familiar choices like carne asada, al pastor, or lengua. But he said customers are learning to love birria — even those who have never tried it before.
"That's one of my goals — and one of my visions for this business — is to change the way that people look at a Mexican food truck," Oblea said. "We're trying to really push the birria and make people aware of what it is."
The red birria tacos came three to an order, made with crisp tortillas lightly fried on the plancha and splashed with consomé. Each taco was stuffed with birria, which is marinated for 24 hours and cooked for seven hours using a blend of spices that Oblea's grandmother brings back from her quarterly bus trips to Jalisco. The result was tender, juicy beef that was fragrant, rich, and comforting, especially combined with the melted Oaxaca cheese. The red salsa inside the tacos was made with Yahualica chiles, a type of chile de árbol from Jalisco. The salsa complemented the birria with assertive heat and slight nuttiness. Citrus-pickled red onions inside the tacos added crunch, acidity, and balance; there's also housemade avocado-jalapeño salsa on the side to perk things up. (For vegetarians and vegans, there's an off-menu version of the red tacos stuffed with corn instead of birria, made with tortillas stained red with vegan chile oil.)
Be sure to order a cup of consomé on the side of your birria tacos. It came with a splash of red salsa, citrus-pickled onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice, all of which added brightness to the broth. Dipping the tacos in the consomé amplified the robust flavors of the birria.
The elotes chidos, which translates to "cool corn," consist of a cup of hot, freshly steamed corn kernels topped with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, a drizzle of mayonnaise, a sprinkling of cotija cheese, lime juice, Tajín, and Tapatío. The combination of corn and Hot Cheetos created a fun contrast of textures, while the mayo and cheese helped tie everything together.
Don't miss the dulce de leche churros, which came out freshly fried, surprisingly devoid of grease, and crisp around the edges. The churros were rolled in cinnamon sugar and stuffed with cajeta, or goat milk caramel, which added nutty depth of flavor without being over-the-top sweet. The dulce de leche dipping sauce, meanwhile, allowed me to add as much sugary goodness as I wanted.
Reflecting on La Santa Torta's opening almost exactly a year ago, Guzman described it "a blessing in disguise." Running his own business gives him flexibility to work while attending San Jose State, where he's majoring in political science. He hopes to go to law school someday so he can mentor people who were once in his shoes.
With the uncertain future of the DACA program, it's impossible to ignore the broader injustices in our immigration system and the toll it takes on families. When Guzman's grandmother passed away, he couldn't return to Aguascalientes to say goodbye. Oblea knows about the culture of Jalisco through his family members but has never been able to visit, even though he still has family there. La Santa Torta is a way for him to connect with the culture of Jalisco and share it with others.
"I know there's a lot of people in my same situation that can't travel, and they can't go back to Jalisco," he said. Entire families, from grandparents to toddlers, visit La Santa Torta to try the birria — an edible piece of their culture.
"Younger folks...they want to feel like they're connected to their heritage. And then the older people that have been gone [from Jalisco] for a long time — it takes them back home."