OAKLAND -- There are any number of reasons to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but food topped the list at Sunday's celebration in the Fruitvale district.
Thousands of people turned out to a four-block stretch of International Boulevard Sunday for a festival in honor of the holiday, many of them parents with strollers or small children in tow. Asked what made them come out, a few said they were honoring the anniversary of the Mexican army's defeating the French in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. A few more said they were there for the music, or the family-friendly atmosphere and the warm weather.
Almost everyone said they were there, at least in part, to eat.
Familiar taco trucks and local restaurants were out en force with a lot of the usual dishes, like burritos, tacos and churros, with the odd bacon-wrapped hot dog or pizza slice for good measure, but a lot of eateries and diners took the chance to sample dishes less widely known in the United States.
"I live in Alameda, but I come out here all the time for groceries and food you can't find there," said Isaura Linares, 24. She said she comes to the Fruitvale to shop for sweet breads, tomatillos and tamarinds; meat is more affordable and cheap, handmade tortillas are easy to find.
The restaurants are also a big draw, she said.
There are Mexican dishes everybody knows, but many regions of Mexico have their own qualities and restaurants throughout the neighborhood have different specialties highlighting the variety, she said.
"There's a little place around here that makes food like they do in Apatzingan, which is not a big touristy region," she said. "It's delicious."
Several small portable stands served tostadas de cuerito -- the usual tostada-topping ingredients laid across a wide, flat, fried piece of pork skin rather than a tortilla.
Taco Zamorano, a truck usually parked around High Street and 40th Avenue, was serving licuados de platano -- a milkshake-like drink with sweet bananas and cinnamon -- and tortas hawayanas, sandwiches with spicy chorizo sausage and pineapple.
El Huarache Azteca, a family-owned International Boulevard restaurant specializing in cuisine from Mexico City, was serving up a pair of less common dishes. Pambazos, as the restaurant serves them, are sandwiches stuffed with chorizo, grilled potatoes, lettuce and cheese and then dipped in a mild red pepper sauce.
Their huaraches are large, thick, fried tortillas laid flat and covered with nopals, a kind of cactus, and a green sauce. Mayra Chavez, whose family owns the business, said the dish is her favorite when it's topped with cuitlacoche, a kind of mushroom that grows on corn.
Courtney Rivard, 30, brought her 3-month-old baby out from their home in Castro Valley to enjoy the weather, some family-friendly neighborhood atmosphere and a pupusa.
"I saw the festival on Yelp.com," she said. She used to live in Oakland, she said, and was glad for a good reason to come back for a visit. "I love the pupusas and the horchata, and I really enjoy the people."
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.