52 years later, owner to part ways with Mario's La Fiesta

Photo: Mario Tejada, 81, is saying goodbye to the restaurant he founded in order to spend more time with his family.
Mario Tejada, 81, is saying goodbye to the restaurant he founded in order to spend more time with his family.

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It has been 57 years since Mario Tejada arrived in the United States, and all but five of them were spent in the kitchen at Mario's La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in Berkeley.

After opening and maintaining the legendary La Fiesta with his wife for 52 years, Tejada said he will finally be venturing out of the kitchen to spend more time with his grandchildren and appreciate the numerous important friendships he has developed with his customers over the years.

Immigrating to the United States in 1954, 24-year-old Tejada had to assume the responsibility to support his family. His father had passed away, and as the eldest son, Tejada had to take care of his family - his mother, two sisters and two brothers - whom he brought to Berkeley a year after he arrived.

Tejada was drafted into the U.S. Army without knowing English four months after arriving in California. He served for two years and then left for Mexico, where he got engaged to his future wife, Rosalinda. They have been married for 55 years.

When the couple moved back to Berkeley, they decided to open a restaurant at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street because they both loved to cook and saw that the city lacked a real, traditional Mexican restaurant.

"At that point, the Mexican food was ... not what we were used to," he said. "We decided to open a restaurant with the original recipes that we used to have when we were kids with our parents."

The La Fiesta kitchen offered cuisine that Mexicans would find in their family's homes. Great care and time was taken to prepare dishes traditionally, and the hot sauce was, well, hot.

The teamwork - Rosalinda cooking and Mario waiting on tables - allowed the Tejadas to successfully open and run their restaurant. But after the first few years, Tejada took charge of the kitchen while his wife raised their three children.

Generations of students were raised through and by La Fiesta, including Tejada's own children. As the restaurant became more successful, his kids began helping out in the family business. Tejada also encouraged them to pursue whatever careers they loved, explaining that his love for cooking led him to maintain his restaurant all these years.

Aside from his children, many UC Berkeley students and residents remained attached to the family atmosphere at the restaurant.

"When we first started, some of the students (who came) ... got engaged, they got married, they have children and they brought their children," he said. "Now, those children are bringing their children."

In addition to enjoying the friendships he has formed with customers, Tejada has seen many events unfold in the city. He said he recalls the 1969 People's Park riots most vividly. With the chaos of the armed police line blocking off Haste east of Telegraph and the tear gas permeating the area in front of his store, his restaurant had been stuck in the middle of the action. La Fiesta remained impartial.

"After the riots during the day, the students were in one corner (of the restaurant) and the police were in another corner eating dinner," he recalls with a chuckle.

But after his laughter died down, Tejada's worn and fatherly features rearranged themselves into a melancholy smile. He has been so rooted in the community built around La Fiesta that it is very difficult to see it all end.

"I love our customers, they have been a part of our lives - we'd have lunch and customers would come over and talk," he said. "We had very emotional goodbyes with them because we've been friends - real good customers and good friends."

Tejada said he will visit the new Mexican restaurant at the La Fiesta location, Remy's, to visit his old customers and see how they are doing. The new restaurant will retain the same menu under the ownership of Manuel Lopez.

"I feel sorry to go - sad," Tejada said, tapping his heart through his white chef's jacket. "But I'm 81 - I don't have much time left to enjoy my grandchildren. I have two grandchildren who play baseball. They're good, I want to watch them."


Jessica Gillotte is the lead business reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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