El Majahual restaurant at 1142 Valencia St. near 23rd is closing next week, according to its owner Hernando Ledesma, who said he is starting a new Colombian restaurant in San Leandro, closer to his home in Oakland.
“I’m so happy,” Ledesma said of the move. The opportunity to own rather than lease a restaurant was too good to pass up, Ledesma said, and though many long-time customers likely won’t make the move across the bay, some have already told him to keep them up to date of his new venture.
“We have 60 emails from customers,” Ledesma said, pulling out a notepad and flipping through pages of phone numbers, emails, and customer names. Ledesma said he’s been inundated with requests to keep them informed. “You want to open something else? I’ll follow you. In case you open something in any place, let us know.”
Hernando and Regina Ledesma have been serving Colombian and Salvadoran food on Valencia Street for 23 years, preparing some 700 tamales a week for the same faces time and again — even children of customers who have been eating there for a couple of decades.
“I started coming here because my family was always here,” said Elaine Kinner, a 23-year-old Colombian eating at the restaurant on Friday. Kinner, who now lives in Oakland and was seated at a table of East Bay residents who gladly made the trek across the water, recalled coming as a younger student when she went to school across the street. “I remember I was a student in City College, and just for lunch coming here for the empanadas.”
“When we came first, we just came for the food,” said Andres Calle, a 21-year-old Colombian friend of Kinner’s. His father would speak with the owner, and the restaurant soon became a familiar place for him. “When you come here, it’s like home — almost.”
Ledesma moved to the United States from Colombia to “get new frontiers” in 1980. An 18-year-old at the time, he thought he would come for a few years, make some money, and return to Colombia. But he stayed, and opened his first restaurant, Los Chorros, in 1981.
“We started here with Salvadoran and Mexican food for the first two to three years,” he said. One summer, during a celebration at Golden Gate Park of Colombia’s independence day on July 20, Ledesma cooked Colombian empanadas for a crowd that bought them up in minutes.
“We sold those 100 empanadas in maybe 20 minutes,” Ledesma said. “A lot of customers asked me, ‘Why don’t you sell more Colombian food?’ And then I figured out that it would be a good time to sell Colombian food in San Francisco.”
Ledesma operated Los Chorros until 1992, when he opened up El Majahual with his wife, who is from El Salvador. The menu is a split between their two countries, though the Colombian food is a customer favorite.
“Now the Colombian food is very successful. We sell about 700 empanadas a week,” Ledesma said, saying they were the most popular dish alongside the bandeja paisa, a pork and meat dish served with red beans, rice, avocado, egg, plantains, and arepas.
And it’s no longer mostly Latino customers, as it was for the restaurant’s first 10 years. Since Valencia Street has transformed from the empty corridor it was when Ledesma first arrived — “very quiet, not a lot of restaurants or businesses,” he said — his clientele has gotten more numerous and diverse.
“Now my customers are not just Latinos. We have Americans, Europeans, Asians,” Ledesma said.
Regulars still make up the bulk of those seated, however, and Kinner said that in the many times she’s come to the place, she never fails to see a familiar face.
“We always find someone we know who’s Colombian,” she said.
“I’m going to miss it — you see a lot of [regular] customers,” Ledesma said, adding that the Mission is a neighborhood “for Latino culture” that he has seen change dramatically in the last decade. The revitalization of Valencia Street may have been a boon to him, but Ledesma acknowledged that other businesses — and residents — have not been able to cope with the rent increases that come with popularity.
“This community is breaking,” he said.
The restaurant’s last day will be Wednesday, January 13, and Ledesma said an Indian restaurant would be opening up in its place, though when is unknown.
He is still negotiating for the new San Leandro location but did not know how long that might take. Business there should prosper, however, because “there’s a big Colombian community in San Jose and Hayward” who Ledesma thinks would be willing to make the drive up.