It’s no coincidence that Alameda-based Mexican food pop-up La Huerta, Spanish for garden, is all about growth. Partners Felipe de la Rosa and Erin Ardito started serving birria out of their home in summer 2020. During a time of intense isolation, opening up their home kitchen was a way to share a piece of their Mexican American culture with friends and neighbors — and the business has grown steadily over the last year and a half. The menu features a rotating roster of specials at the pop-up’s new home at Alameda German restaurant Speisekammer.
De la Rosa grew up in the town of Zacoalco de Torres in Jalisco, Mexico and moved to Oakland in 2008 to work and attend school. While washing dishes at a Berkeley Italian restaurant, he realized he wanted more. “So I started cooking, basically using the same technique as my father told me but just different ingredients,” he says. A decade later, de la Rosa found himself working as head chef at Speisekammer, where he met Ardito, a Bay Area native who was working there as a server.
When the pandemic hit, de la Rosa found himself at home more than he’d ever been. Pottering around the corn stalks in his vegetable garden in front of his home, de la Rosa started chatting with the neighbors. “People were always stopping to talk to him,” Ardito laughs thinking back to those early pandemic days. Those garden conversations planted the seeds for an idea: with more time and a desire to deepen connections with the community, de la Rosa and Ardito decided to start selling Mexican food out of their home.
Birria was a natural starting point; De la Rosa’s home state of Jalisco is the birthplace of the traditional stew. He spent his younger years at his father’s side, helping make the dish for 500 people at a time. And with the dish gaining popularity in the Bay Area, Ardito had a hunch his legacy recipe would be a hit. So they opened up orders, offering the stewed beef both as quesobirria tacos with consommé and serving a larger plate with rice and beans.
“Most of our initial customers were just friends and family, and then neighbors, who started spreading the word,” Ardito says. “Being able to do this in Alameda has been the best thing. It’s very neighborly.” Like many pop ups, social media fueled their marketing. An Alameda Facebook group of 15,000 has shown great support; Instagram has shown slow growth as Ardito figures out what to post to capture an audience. She handles all the front-of-house business, including social media. “People love to see churros,” she says a little incredulously.
But while a boomerang of dipping quesobirria in consommé is almost always guaranteed likes, the La Huerta menu is more than just viral content. They play around with dishes like birria ramen and American-style crunchy tacos, but return to Mexican and Mexican-American favorites like costillas, pollo en mole, and chile relleno. The seasons heavily influence what de la Rosa decides to serve, with hits like posole and ceviche tostadas satisfying customers. Taco fillings vary from chorizo con papas to al pastor shaved off the trompo to freshly fried fish. Refried beans are spiked with bacon, rice is always fluffy, and totopos are made in house to pair with freshly made guacamole. And of course, there are scratch-made churros.
Attention to detail and authenticity are what drive La Huerta. Nearly everything is made in-house, from toasting and grinding spices for mole to roasting the carrots and jalapenos for escabeche. De la Rosa and Ardito want Mexican American cuisine to be thought of as more than fast and cheap. “There’s complexity that goes into every Mexican dish,” Ardito says. “La Huerta is about giving respect to that culture and changing the views around who Mexican people are.”
As the business grew, their home kitchen became too small to support demand. De la Rosa repurposed a room previously used as an office and built a commercial-style kitchen. But power outages and space limitations continued to slow down service. Then in spring 2021, the owners of Speiskammer, where de la Rosa still works for his day job, offered the duo their kitchen on Mondays and Tuesdays. They added a bartender, making Speiskammer’s extensive beer list and custom cocktails available with La Huerta’s food.
La Huerta’s success is directly tied back to the support from the community, the duo says, and Ardito and de la Rosa are passionate about giving back. They’ve contributed to funds for immigrants and farmers in the past, but wanted to do more. “With La Huerta, we can get more people to help,” de la Rosa says. They saw how hard the pandemic hit immigrant families. “Felipe and I both feel very, very, very strongly about immigration in the United States and the lack of immigration reform,” Ardito says. She did some research and found Social Justice Collaborative, a smaller nonprofit based in Berkeley that focuses on providing legal help for asylum seekers with gender based and domestic violence claims. La Huerta has donated portions of their profit to Social Justice Collaborative’s legal work, and they set up a toy drive over the holidays.
The couple hopes to expand La Huerta into its own space by summer 2023. Starting at home gave them the flexibility to be creative, and they’d like to keep any new space on the smaller side. But they intend to keep their business in Alameda, where their home is and where they’re raising their daughter. They have visions of hosting garden dinners and education events with Alameda Point Collaborative, Alameda County’s largest supportive housing community. Expanding their collaborations with the community and keeping their business connected to social justice work is an important part of their platform. For La Huerta, growth is about coming together. “We want people to still feel like they’re coming into our home,” says Ardito.
La Huerta is open every other Monday and Tuesday for indoor and outdoor dining and take out orders at Speisekammer (2424 Lincoln Avenue in Alameda) from 3-8 p.m. Preorders can be placed online.