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Immigrants Add Spice To Telegraph’s Cafes

By Patrick Galvin Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 06, 2004

Austrian immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in the recent recall election is one the highest profile immigrant success stories in California’s history. Yet immigrant success has been an important contributor to the state’s economic and cultural vitality since long before Schwarzenegger ascension. 

The stories of three restauranteurs from Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Mexico on a short stretch of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue personify the dreams and contributions that thousands of immigrants have made to California.  


Kiet Truong, 33, Vietnamese, owner, Unicorn, 2533 Telegraph Ave. 841-8098, 

Truong arrived in the United States in 1979 when he was nine years old. His ethnic Chinese family fled Vietnam to escape political persecution. As a child, he loved science and math. His interests led him to pursue a computer engineering degree. Until three years ago, he worked as a systems engineer. Then, along with many other technical workers in the Bay Area, he lost his job during the dot-com collapse. 

Seeing how tenuous it is to work for others, Truong resolved to become an entrepreneur. He grew up with a love for fine food thanks to his mother’s great cooking. When he got the entrepreneurial bug, his mother was working at Oakland’s Le Cheval Vietnamese restaurant. She agreed to come to work for Truong. 

In September 2001, with financial assistance from his brother, Truong signed a lease for his Telegraph Avenue location in a spot that had seen a numerous restaurants come and go with none of them succeeding.  

Following 9/11, restaurants throughout the Bay Area felt an immediate negative impact on sales. “What could I do? I had just opened Unicorn, and I knew it would be tough. Working 12 to 15 hours per day six days a week, I’ve managed to survive when seven out of 10 restaurants that opened in 2002 have already closed.” 

Truong attributes his success to his unique cuisine and ambiance. Unicorn specializes in dishes from the Chao Zhou province of southern China, where influences of Vietnam and Malaysia show up in the spiky flavors of curry, tamarind, mint, and lemongrass. Meanwhile, the ambiance is California contemporary-chic with a pleasingly arty decor. The unique look, which Truong designed and built, is so well executed that it is already spawning copycat versions around Berkeley.  


Roman Zewde, 45, owner, Fin Fine, 2556 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. 883-0167. 

When she worked in the catering department at International House on the UC Berkeley campus, Zewde dreamed of opening a restaurant as popular as her mother’s in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia. But, it took her years to save up the money and get the experience she needed. 

Twelve years after arriving in the United States, Zewde realized her dream in June 2001 when she opened Fin Fine, a restaurant specializing in Ethiopian cuisine. Zewde works in the kitchen six days a week preparing traditional Ethiopian cuisine with an emphasis on seafood dishes that are hard to find at other Ethiopian restaurants in the Bay Area. 

Zewde believes in making everything from scratch including injera that is flat bread made from a dense grain called teff. The bread, which is always served cold, covers the entire dish and all the food is placed on top of it. Injera tastes best at the end of the meal, after it has soaked up all the good juices. However, rolls of it come to the table where one tears it into smaller pieces that are used to scoop up vegetable stews or slow-cooked meats. 

“It’s a dream come to true to own my own restaurant in America. And, I’m proud that people come from San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento to eat the food I make,” said Zewde. 


Mario Tejada, 73, owner, Mario’s La Fiesta, 2444 Telegraph Ave. 848-2588. 

In 1954, Mario Tejada immigrated to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico. As soon as Tejada became a citizen, the United States military drafted him, and he served in Korea until 1956. 

In 1959, Tejada saw a classified ad for a sandwich shop for sale on Telegraph Avenue. Seeking a change from his carpenter’s job, he managed to purchase the shop and used his carpentry skills to convert it into a Mexican restaurant. 

“The secret to my success was introducing real Mexican food to Americans. We were one of the first restaurants in the Bay Area to serve chile verde and chile colorado. Also, we weren’t afraid to give people real hot sauce instead of the watery stuff that people were served in other places,” said Tejada. 

“Our business got another big boost in the early ‘70s when we introduced the super burrito to the East Bay. People just couldn’t get enough of our fat burritos stuffed with meat, beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole, and salsa,” added Tejada. 

Mario’s has been open for so long that Tejada has seen many customers come back years later with children and grandchildren. “We have great regulars who live and work in the area. It’s like they are part of our family,” concluded Tejada.