A Tour Of Richmond’s Underground Dining Scene
During the uncertainty of the pandemic, residents in Richmond started selling home-cooked meals straight from their kitchens to pay bills and using social media to advertise their cuisines.
Over the past year, many Bay Area restaurants have relied on take-out to stay open. In Richmond, restaurants have popped up in people’s homes, giving diners home-cooked takeout meals from the city's diverse communities, and providing home cooks some economic relief during these uncertain times.
Our first stop in Richmond’s underground food scene is in North East Richmond with Bertha Bravo who makes food from Central America.
In June, Bertha started selling food she made at home. Her son Denis handles their Instagram account under the name @comidastradicionales, posting tempting photos, and their customers message them directly.
Bertha's most sought-after dish is her pupusas. She pats the damp masa using the palm of her hand, then uses the tips of her fingers to create a small bowl which she fills with meats and cheese. She closes out the sides to make a small ball and then she pats it down to make a disk before placing it on top of the hot comal.
“I made the decision to sell food because I lost my job,” Bertha says. “I told myself ‘I'm going to try to do it at home.’”
She cooks dishes from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador which she says all use different names for similar food. “I like to make the pupusas, the empanadas," she says. "In El Salvador, they call them cakes. I have faith that one day I will have a restaurant or food truck.”
The rise of home food businesses during the pandemic has been made possible with social media, especially Instagram. Cooks post their hours of operation and pictures of their food on their profiles, and their customers order through Instagram’s direct messaging.
That's how the family in our second stop on the Richmond underground food tour reach their customers. Isabel Coba and her son Jesus moved to North Richmond 10 years ago from San Francisco.
“For more than 30 years, I started working as a dishwasher and over the years I learned more about how to cook,” Isabel says. “And then I started working in catering, in events. There, I learned more. I learned to be a confectioner, learn to make — well, I learned everything.”
Isabel lost her job in the catering business during the pandemic because events came to a complete stop. She started making the food from her hometown, Puebla Mexico. She makes mole from chilies and chocolate, and pipian, made of pumpkin seeds.
Isabel lays out a black disposable container with boiled chicken and she tops it with a creamy green pipian. She serves it with black beans and brown rice mixed with corn. “These are foods that you do not see here. I want people to know that there is more delicious food that is homemade than what is sold in a Mexican restaurant,” she says.
Her son Jesus helps her manage her Instagram account. Their business is Richmond-based, but his customers know through his Instagram that they can find him in the Mission District in San Francisco on the weekends. He says in Richmond, it's mostly breakfast people getting chilaquiles and tortas.
For Jesus, his mom’s cooking has history. Puebla, the state the Cobas are from, is the state where the Cinco de Mayo battle took place. Mexico winning the battle against the French displayed strength, so food for him is the essence of resilience.
“It means decolonization. It means respecting the motherland, it means part of our culture like there's so many cultures and so many folks from around the world,” Cobas says. “It's beautiful, I think. To not learn or get to taste or see other people's cultures in life is missing a big piece of the puzzle.”
The mole poblano strikes Jesus at his core. He craves the sauce dripping onto the red rice served with warm tortillas. He feels proud to share his culture with the community and bring light to dark times through food.
“It really gives that at-home feel for a lot of people so it's a beautiful feeling. Everyone loves food. There's always gonna be a necessity for food,” he says.
Isabel Cobas tells me her economic needs led her to start her own business at home, and in the murkiness of the pandemic, she got a clear understanding of her own potential.
“I feel that I have been wasting my time working for someone else when I could have done it for myself,” she says.
In 2012, California passed a bill called Cottage Food Operation that allows people to prepare and sell food made in their kitchen if they meet certain requirements. In Richmond, six people have gotten these permits, but many others sell food from their homes without permits as means to survive.
People like Denny, who lives on San Pablo Avenue.
Denny, who is a community organizer, saw a lot of deaths at the start of the pandemic. He has been working to support his community by making Laotian food.
Denny says when he was little his grandmother would feed him chicken with sticky rice. She was an influence for the applewood smoked chicken wings that he makes, and the rice that balances out the meal.
“It has a lot of good memories tied to it," Denny says. “ The sticky rice is really sticky, so she would just grab chicken wings and put chicken grease on my fingers, just so that the rice doesn’t stick.”
On the side of the chicken wings, Denny serves fried pork skins and papaya salad that he describes as a spiritual experience. There are different spice levels but he says when he gets it just right it’s the best thing you’ll ever eat.
“Just because the initial sweetness gets to you first, and then it's like you're enjoying all flavors chewing into it, and then the spice kicks in,” Denny says. “I like to call it different things but can you call it Tam Sum. That basically just means smash and sour. Because you have to literally like shred all the papaya and smash all the ingredients out of mortar and pestle,” he says.
Like in many places, the pandemic blanketed Richmond with loss and grief.
“It was a lot of people that passed away. There were like 12 people that passed away in the Khmu community. I think it was a few to COVID but a lot of them have died to, like, various cancers and other illnesses,” Denny says. “The young folks that passed away in Richmond, I think, a few of them died in a car accident.”
2020 was a rough year for Denny and his community, which made him ask himself, “How can I try to make the situation better, or at least like how can I support these folks? I can't console the family emotionally or anything like that. I could at least give them some cash to help them cover these funeral expenses.”
Denny started noticing more GoFundMe pages in Richmond and he didn’t think it would be enough to cover expenses.
“I think my food was more or less just like a way for me to give back to the community in a way that felt right to me, especially during such a tough time," Denny says. "I could give people good food that is made with love and care."
Whether it’s to support their communities or to provide a new income source for themselves, these and other home cooks in Richmond turned to their culture and kitchens to survive the pandemic.