Gicela “Mama Coco” Castro    Tortillera and Prep Cook

Gicela “Mama Coco” Castro

Tortillera and Prep Cook

Lifelong practice brings mastery. As a child, Gicela “Mama Coco” Castro learned how to make tortillas from her mother and aunties and she has been making them ever since. Seeking her first job after raising her family, Gicela came in for an interview and redefined tortilla perfection. When we asked her to demonstrate her tortilla making skills, she showed a peace of mind that only comes with the confidence of a lifelong daily culinary habit.

When not on stage as a tortillera, Gicela artfully crafts our guacamole, salsa fresca, and rajas with knife skills that are clean, quick and sure. It wasn’t long before she earned her nickname "Mama Coco"—her talent and temperament bear a strong resemblance to the character Coco from the Pixar movie of the same name. Her sense of humor keeps her co-workers laughing as everyone is tasting and chatting about food. Picante is grateful for Gicela’s presence and our guests appreciate her cooking without ever seeing her in action in our back-of-the house preparation kitchen.

Thank you, Mama Coco, for being part of the Picante family. And, yes, we’ll have another tamale! ; )

Manuel Perez   Cashier/Bartender

Manuel Perez


Our cashiers typically make a first impression with the guest at Picante, so we look for people with a natural smile and warmth, and also an ability to make each guest feel like they are the only one in the restaurant, even when the line is long. Manuel Perez, or Mannie as we call him, is approaching his 1 year anniversary with us, but is already a great role model for the cashier team. Mannie is a rich resource for cashiers in training who have questions, always taking the time to tell them—and show them—how something is done. He makes the guests feel the same level of care and his superpower is that he never panics when there is a long line of hungry folks. His personal service shows up in how he walks a new guest to the water station or the restroom if they ask where it is. His tip jar overflows with cash compliments which are shared with the entire staff of his shift.

Mannie has been quick to assimilate protocol, always integrating feedback into upgrading his moves. He never makes the same mistake twice! His attention to detail was never more evident than when he asked that we delay his photo shoot until after his haircut. We obliged.

Mannie also works as a trainer at 24-hour fitness and enjoys our chicken plate along with plenty of water, His healthy habits are admirable. Yet when he is feeling indulgent you might spot him with a comforting quesadilla.

Thank you, Mannie, for all you are and all you do for us!

Guadalupe “Lupita” Matamoros    Expediter

Guadalupe “Lupita” Matamoros


Guadalupe or “Lupita” started at Picante as a busser in 2000. By 2005 we created the expediter position which has been perfected with her input. The expediter—or expo—inspects each dish for accuracy against the order ticket, and culls all the dishes on one ticket for runners to bring to your table.

Lupita’s sense of urgency means that you receive your chips and dips before anything else arrives at the table. Extraordinary focus and presence means Lupita avoids mistakes and has an uncanny recall for the several hundred orders she handles each day. Armed with the understanding that you eat with your eyes first Lupita create a group of tools that she uses to align everything on your plate so it looks picture-perfect.

There was a time when Picante needed a baker for our housemade cakes and cookies. Lupita surprised us with her baking skills and baked them for our guests for more than two years.

Congratulate Lupita on still standing out after so many years with Picante.

Francisca Diaz    Lead Prep Cook

Francisca Diaz

Lead Prep Cook

Our lead prep cook, Francisca Diaz, was originally hired as a tortillera. Her peace of mind and the beauty of her hand movements makes for some of the most delicious tortillas north of the border. However, making tortillas is not her only area of mastery.

From deft knife skills to understanding how to taste and when to taste, her expertise is being passed along to newer staff members who assist in the preparation of all of our recipes. Her excellent ability to communicate serves her well in the role of teacher and Francisca has trained many cooks that have come into her kitchen. And while any kitchen has people moving swiftly Francisca’s pace and focus is apparent: while she is speaking to colleagues she is busily taking the seeds out of chiles for the next recipe.

Francisca's polite nature does not stop her from expressing strong opinions about her cookery and how the kitchen operates. From how to best schedule her team to which equipment will yield the desired results, Francisca’s knowledge and confidence sets the bar high. It was easy to decide that this month’s spotlight should be on her!

Thank you Francisca, for your delicious leadership in the kitchen!

Samuel Tunches Perez    line cook/expo

Samuel Tunches Perez

line cook/expo

The ability to make burritos may sound easy, but when the tickets start flying out of the printer and they all read BURRITO it can become overwhelming for the line cook handling burritos. This month’s team member spotlight is on a guy who retains legendary focus, even under intense pressure. Samuel Tunches Perez, or Sam, is not easily shaken.

Sam is a skilled line cook who has mastered all of the stations that plate your food, even though he has only been with us for one year. This is an unusual talent as most line cooks settle into and master one location, not moving from station to station. Whether sautéeing fish or grilling steak, Sam gives his coworkers the fillings they request to complete their order quickly, always looking relaxed and having fun.

Sam’s execution of assembling a plate or bowl of food is meticulous. Defined by the way he presents the salads in an artistic and appetizing way, Sam’s plating of dishes always has correct and consistent portions.

He has an amazing ability to be as present with the food as he is with his co-workers, with an uncanny flair for clear communication under fire. Paired with a commitment to making sure you get your order in a timely and correct fashion has elevated him to the the trusted expo position where he accurately matches order tickets to the plated food so you receive exactly what you are expecting.

We appreciate the role Sam plays in helping us make sure every guest leaves happy.

Rubi Alvarado    cashier

Rubi Alvarado


One has to do more than just serve memorable food to bring guests back. This month’s spotlight shines brightly on one cashier who can make you feel as if this is your home away from home. Rubi Alvarado has been with Picante just 2 years but this is her second time in the spotlight. Making eye contact with each and every member of a large group or family, Rubi puts the guest at ease, always taking time to retrieve samples, discuss menu items and ask probing questions to insure she gets the order and the quantity right for the guest. It’s not uncommon, when the order is complete, that she has locked the guest’s name into memory for their next visit.

Even during a lull, Rubi is always busy preparing for the next crush of guests so she can keep the line moving. But when it’s your turn, she’ll make you feel as if you are the only guest in the restaurant. Rubi had a wonderful teacher in her entrepreneurial mother, who has owned a beauty salon for 20 years—called Rubi’s—so she knows what it takes to make sure customers always leave happy. If you spot Rubi during her regular evening shift, or on Sunday morning for brunch, introduce yourself and say congratulations!

Sabrina Gomez  line cook, master trainer

Sabrina Gomez

line cook, master trainer

In the early morning hours, the restaurant sounds like a television show: Picante’s Got Talent. With perfect pitch, our team member in the spotlight, Sabrina Gomez, serenades your food while the rest of the staff turns off the usual boom boxes, to listen. Though Sabrina has only worked at Picante for 1-1/2 years, she is already in charge of opening the entire hot-line in the morning which is a complicated, 4-hour task.

As a line cook, she is a master of the salad station, expertly rolls burritos and artfully and accurately plates every item that is on our menu—over 100! Being evenly skilled on the cook line makes her the perfect master trainer— responsible for new team members learning excellent technique at the salad, grill, burrito and sauté areas.

Another invaluable skill Sabrina shares is an awareness of condiment levels. A perfectly timed trip to the walk-in refrigerator for more guacamole keeps the line moving while communicating a pending shortage of salsa to the kitchen manager prevents a catastrophe. We appreciate all she brings to the table and to the guests.

Erika Calderon  busser/runner, expo, cashier

Erika Calderon

busser/runner, expo, cashier

The position of expediter or “expo” at Picante is at the center of all the food served to our guests. The job is pivotal in that the plates of food from the kitchen must be accurately matched with the guest’s order check with all dishes on the ticket consolidated before being brought to the guest’s table. The expo insures that guests get what they ordered and everyone at your table has their food at the same time.

During her short time as a busser/runner, Erika Calderon trained herself in recognizing what every plate was supposed to look like, learning the 100+ items on our menu. She was quickly promoted to the expo position because of her exhaustive menu knowledge, but her cheerful attitude and remarkable memory of guests names has her in training to become a cashier.

Whether she is interfacing between the kitchen and the guest as an expo, or the guest and the kitchen as a cashier, her communication is always clear and concise, preventing or solving problems as necessary. Erika’s professionalism extends to her co-workers, always listening, encouraging and congratulating them. Managers can count on her to speak up on behalf of guests or colleagues to keep Picante running smoothly.

You’ll see her soon in her new role as cashier, if not on her break eating pozole. Either way, raise a glass to this month’s team member in the spotlight.

Nick Romero  Bartender, cashier, expo, busser/runner

Nick Romero

Bartender, cashier, expo, busser/runner

Anyone who dines at the bar knows our team member spotlight should shine brightly this month on Nick Romero. Nick shakes up the best margaritas in Berkeley. Always organized with how he sets up his station, he keeps it in perfect order to hand off to any team member taking over the bar.

His position, close to the door, offers him the opportunity to dazzle with his superpower: recognizing guests who have never been to Picante. Recently Nick impressed a new guest with his patience and perseverance. The guest asked for a recommendation. Nick made one and retrieved the guest a sample. The guest did not like what he tasted so Nick continued to suggest and sample until the guest was absolutely delighted.

His customer service as a cashier is also exemplary. A guest arrived whose take-out food was not yet packaged. Nick kept the guest company until the order was in their hands. The guest told the manager on duty how impressed they were with the amazing service experience Nick provided.

Nick is accurate and through in his cash handling skills, always finishing his shift with the correct paper work and cash in his drawer. Along with everything else about his performance his time management, punctuality, and perfect attendance makes him an obvious choice for this month’s team member spotlight. Tell him congratulations if you catch him on break with his favorite dish: chile relleno.

Deyinara Campos  Tortillera, prep cook

Deyinara Campos

Tortillera, prep cook

Because women tend to possess the food knowledge of their homeland, our prep kitchen is entirely female. A prep cook at Picante requires multiple skills—the most important of which is her ability to make our signature handmade tortillas. The spotlight for October is on Deyanira Campos. Her undistracted zen-like peace of mind when laying a floppy disc of masa on the very hot sheet of steel is amazing to watch. Deyanira’s tortillas are perfectly round with a speckle of brownness.

Dicing, cutting and chopping all that is needed for each of our 100+ recipes is a never ending task in our kitchen. Her knife skills are extraordinarily fast and uniform. If we had a speedometer to measure her, she may be the fastest with a knife, but as we emphasize safety over speed, there is no way to tell.

Deyanira is responsible for teaching new staff. Her approach is clear and direct instruction delivered with friendliness and warmth, making new team members feel welcome and confident. Along with everything else about her performance this past year, her punctual and perfect attendance makes her an obvious choice for this month’s team member spotlight. If you see her eating her favorite dish, enchiladas verdes, say felicidades!

Mario Lopez  busser/runner, expo, stocker, floor conductor

Mario Lopez

busser/runner, expo, stocker, floor conductor

Relatively new to the Picante team, Mario Lopez’s initiative has driven him to master four distinctive job positions in just two years. As a busser/runner he delivers food and clears tables; as an expo he culls all the dishes of an order together and makes sure they are correctly made; as a stocker he stores the vast amount of ingredients and supplies we receive daily; and as a floor conductor he calls out what the needs are in the dining room, at any given time, to his team via radio headsets. This cross-training gives him the ability to cover for co-workers who are unable to make their shift while helping him understand how all the roles work together to create a positive guest experience.

Guests appreciate how polite and knowledgeable Mario is, and staff members rely on his rapid response to their calls for assistance on the radio headsets. Loved at Picante, as well as in his community, Mario’s connections have resulted in the recruitment of several qualified candidates to join the Picante team. And because he eats his way around the entire menu he is the perfect person to tell you about any dish you haven’t tried. Thanks, Mario, for keeping things running smoothly!

Patricio De La Torre, dishwasher, handyman

Patricio De La Torre, dishwasher, handyman

Good buildings have strong foundations, and good restaurants have a solid back of the house. If it weren't for the reliability of our dishwasher and emergency handyman, Patricio De La Torre, our prep cooks couldn't even get started. Aside from the dishes, silverware and glasses made sparkling for the guest, our prep team relies on Patricio to have all the tools they need, sterilized and ready at the crack of dawn. He keeps the back of the house impeccably organized so time is never wasted looking for the right instrument for the job.

The dishwasher position is one made for an athlete, especially on a busy night. One glance at Patricio in action would explain why you might catch him devouring 4 empanadas on break—his job is relentless and fast-paced. Serious and energetic, Patricio loves sharing his abuelita's special lemonade recipe with the staff.

Service would come to a screeching halt without someone like Patricio keeping our back of the house running smoothly. We are grateful he is part of the Picante family!



Jim Maser, BHS grad & owner

Jim Maser, BHS grad & owner

My journeys south of the border began four decades ago. Everything about Mexico captivated me—the art, the history, and especially the food. But when I returned back home to my native Berkeley  I couldn’t find the flavors I’d savored while traveling and studying the cuisine from one region of Mexico to the next. So after years of cooking for friends and family, with ingredients I stashed in my suitcase from my many trips south, Picante was born.

 Picante is an expression of my love for Mexico. Love is why I grind corn daily for our tortillas,  import Mexican herbs, spices & chiles , and why I have local artisans craft cheese capturing the same nuances as fresh Mexican queso. Love explains why I grill only never-ever meats and why our addictive chips come from organic corn tortillas we slice right here—not from a bag. 

I would never claim Picante is authentically Mexican—food can only be considered truly authentic if it’s made in Mexico. And while the dishes at Picante may not be coming from some grandmother’s kitchen in Mexico, the reactions I get tell me it’s pretty close.

Let me know what you think by dropping me a line. Just click the button below.