Don’t you love discovering that little hole in the wall place that you would never in a million years think to walk into? And then one day you do walk in … and you find a culinary gem. More often than not, in search of these scattered pearls, you leave with regret, but every so often, you find the sparkle, the dishes you crave, a secret master in the kitchen. Nevermind the ripped nagahide-covered chairs, the peeling paint, the sketchy bathroom (okay, well, it’s always nice if your culinary gem is actually kept clean!).

My favorite hole-in-the wall is a little Mexican restaurant called Juanita’s, located in the heart of downtown Oakland. Having been open for the past 28 years, it’s not really my discovery, it’s been discovered by anyone who works or lives (or has worked or lived) anywhere near downtown Oakland. Monday through Friday, for lunchtime only, hordes of people line up in the hopes that they might be able to snag one of the few coveted tables in the pink-hued, bustling, sparsely decorated restaurant. And while it’s not big on decor, it is big on taste (and portions!).

Those in the know–myself included–crave the tender Friday carnitas (they aren’t on the menu), the fiery pico de gallo with chunks of cooling creamy avocado (but only when it’s in season), and the tangy chicken enchiladas bathed in green tomatillo sauce. The dark, deeply flavorful mole, served over enchiladas or tender pieces of chicken, will convince anyone to come back for more. Loosen your belt, because the portions are huge. Just when you think you can’t fit another morsel in, you’ll find room, only to leave in a sleepy stupor.

I love this family-run restaurant for more than the food though. It’s the whole package. Alphonso, the owner, is quite a character; he’s full of opinions and many interesting stories to tell (but you have to get on his good side first!). The restaurant is named after his grandmother, whose recipes grace the menu. His wife is at the helm of the kitchen, with Alphonso running the front. As with any proud restaurant, there are some rules. Be nice to Alphonso, don’t seat yourself (wait for Alphonso to tell you where to sit), and stick to the menu. There are no variations allowed here. And finally, be patient. It might take a while to have your order taken, but the food comes quickly and is always hot.

Sadly, now that I work in San Francisco, it’s a rare occasion that I get to enjoy Juanita’s. But if I’m lucky enough to be in the East Bay during the week, you can bet you will know where to find me…

Here are the details:

Juanita’s Restaurant

Address: 1734 Webster Street in downtown Oakland

Phone: 510-465-8767

(they do take lunchtime reservations for large parties)

Hours: M-F, 11:30am to 2pm (or thereabouts)

Craving Carnitas at Juanita’s 7 February,2005Kim Laidlaw

  • Anonymous

    I totally disagree with the opinion posted above. The restaurant is pricey for the quantity and quality of food. I ordered a Carne Asada, the meat tasted stale.

    Secondly, this the waiter was extremely rude. I think he is the owner guy. Well he has quiet an attitude being an owner.

    Overall, I walked out with a bad feeling and still hungry !!!

  • Reco Prianto

    I agree with the review completely.

    I eat Mexican food quite often and this place is in the top 5 all time anywhere in the country.

    The owner/waiter is a bit rough around the edges at first, but like the reviewer said, once he warms up to you, he is quite entertaining and easy going.

    If you are looking for incredible service, go eat at a stuffy restaurant in San Francisco…if you want great Mexican food, and yes large portions, for a great price, under $10; then this is a no-brainer.


Kim Laidlaw

Kim Laidlaw is a cookbook author, editor, food writer, producer, project manager, and baker who has been in the kitchen covered in flour since she was big enough to stir the biscuit dough. She has over 16 years of experience in book and online publishing, and a lifetime of experience in the kitchen.

Her first cookbook, Home Baked Comfort, was published in 2011; her second cookbook, Baby & Toddler On the Go, was published in April 2013; and her third cookbook, Williams-Sonoma Dessert of the Day, was published in October 2013.

She was the first blogger on KQED’s Bay Area Bites blog, which launched in 2005, and previously worked as a professional baker at La Farine French Bakery in Oakland, CA. She lives in Petaluma with her husband and their child, whom she cooks for everyday. Find out more at

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