For Humberto Molina, who immigrated from Mexico to California in 1980, the American dream is about finding the opportunity to be successful — more successful than he could have been in Mexico.
It took years of working in restaurants, cooking, washing dishes and bartending before Molina realized his dream. In June, a mariachi band performed on Shattuck Avenue for the grand opening of his restaurant, Casa Bernal Taqueria.
"After 31 years here, it was time for me to work for myself," he said.
Being a restauranteur runs in Molina's blood. His father owned two restaurants in California, one in Sonora and one in Burbank, and Molina had assisted him. "Everything was really good until 2001," said Molina.
Then 9/11 happened, and altered Molina's life path. "Sonora, it's a very small town, a tourist-business town near Yosemite," he said. When people stopped traveling after the terrorist attacks, "the impact for us was immediate," he said, and the city's economy and their restaurant declined.
In 2003, following his father's death, Molina left the restaurant business and his home in Sonora behind. "I was forced to come to a bigger city to look for opportunities," he said.
He moved to the Bay Area, working as a dishwasher and then a cook, but found it unsatisfying. "They don't pay cooks much in California, and the job is hard," he said. "So I became a bartender."
But his position at the Hilton's sports bar was unstable, and after being laid off for the third time, Molina decided he was finished. Ten years had passed since his family's restaurant floundered in Sonora, and Molina knew he wanted to start a restaurant of his own in Berkeley.
"I talked to one of my nephews in Mexico, and he invested some money in this place," he said. "And that's how my American dream came true."
Casa Bernal Taqueria takes its name from Molina's real last name — Bernal. His mother's maiden name was accidentally recorded as his surname on his U.S. citizenship papers, a mistake he decided to live with.
The taqueria occupies the spot formerly held by the celebrated Amanda's Feel Good Fresh Food, which went out of business in 2010. Across the street, two commercial spaces sit empty — a stark reminder of the troubled economic times.
But Molina has big plans for his business. He's mindful of the Bay Area's anti-GMO persuasion. "Ninety-five percent of our food is organic, and we keep it affordable for the students and everybody," he said.
His new dream is to open a second location for Casa Bernal in Pleasanton, Dublin or San Mateo in the next few years.
Molina said he starts his day at 6 a.m. and stays at the restaurant until 10:30 or 11 p.m. "I have to be checking everything," he said. "Today is my only day off, so I have to be here," he joked on Sunday afternoon.
At his Downtown Berkeley location, Molina said folks remind him a bit of the friendly, polite people in his former tourist town. "I just love the people around here," he said.
He said Berkeley's population count is the major difference that makes his new restaurant a successful venture. There were fewer than 5,000 people in Sonora, but Berkeley's population is over 100,000 strong — far better for business.
Juliana Maya, a cashier at Casa Bernal and a student around the corner from the restaurant at Berkeley City College, thinks the taqueria is just what Downtown Berkeley needed. "Before, I walked through here and I thought we need a Mexican place — because I'm Mexican," she said. "And now it's here!"
Continuing the restaurant tradition in the family, Molina's son Guillermo Bernal is the general manager of Casa Bernal, and Bernal's wife is the assistant manager.
Molina also has a daughter who lives in Sonora with her husband, and is expecting her first child. Molina is proud to say he'll become a grandfather in two or three weeks.
Times are good again for Molina, and his new family restaurant is a big reason. "We're very happy," Molina said.