The first time Ken Lewis tried to call Maria Delgadillo, he got the fire department. The two had met at a bar while he was on shore leave in San Diego, where one look at her struck him dumb. The whole night, he spent himself on wooing her but came away with nothing but stars in his eyes and a bum number.
But no matter, he had a plan.
At the time, Maria had been crossing the border everyday to work at a fitness chain in San Diego, a detail she'd leaked to Lewis in the bar. He called every location until she gave in to the pages, and picked up the phone.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"No, you're not sorry. But know how you can make it up to me?" he said. He took her out, and when he left, bought her tickets to visit him in San Francisco. With some prodding from her friends, she agreed.
He won her over quickly, and a few years later they'd settled down with two babies, Lewis working as a pharmaceutical salesman. Maria always had dreams of opening a bakery, and by 1997, ready for something new, they put down an offer on an old taqueria in South Berkeley. They were outbid, but landed the space for half the price when the original buyer caved. And so, La Familia was born.
Winning the space was a dream, but affording rent meant trading in their house for a 1977 RV they affectionately called "007," per the license plate, and parked in the Home Depot parking lot where Lewis started pulling night shifts, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. After that, he slept until 11 a.m., then went to work at the restaurant until it was time again for the night shift. For ablutions, they got a membership to the YMCA. The set up lasted for almost a year, until the RV got too cold and they moved to sleeping next to the heaters in the restaurant. Times were hard, but it was working.
"All we had were two babies, an RV, and a dream," says Lewis.
Slowly, surely, business picked up, and it didn't take long until they had the whole town's loyalty, due in part to a particular specialty of Delgadillos that, over almost two decades, has won the collective heart of Berkeley: fish tacos. Delgadillo grew up as the daughter of a fisherman in Ensenada in Baja California, from which she draws the flavor palate of La Familia's menu. She keeps much of the recipe secret, but her technique shines through. The fish -- fresh Alaskan pollock -- is lightly beer battered, and served up with salsa fresca, thin strips of cabbage, a whisper of lime, and a magical sour cream bay sauce. The tacos have picked up a rather quiet cult following, but even popularity won't budge the spot's integrity. Since the beginning, they've held to some of the lowest prices in town.
"It means a low profit margin, but we want to stay neighborhood-minded," says Lewis. The blocks surrounding it are blossoming with higher-priced joints, but that's part of what keeps La Familia so loveable. That, and the mysterious fact that no one is talking about it. When I tell Lewis I'm writing about the tacos, he puts down his beer and smiles a ten year old's smile.
"We've been waiting for you for seventeen years."
Visit Taqueria La Familia at 2971 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.