Cristal and the American Dream: Culinary Innovation, Business Savvy and Social Media | KCET
Cristal and the American Dream: Culinary Innovation, Business Savvy and Social Media
The red booths at El Cristalazo are deep and comfortable, welcoming for couples, families and the stray individuals eager for a taste of the famous tamales barbones and the restaurant's namesake, El Cristalazo. The restaurant's owner and head chef, Ninive "Cristal" Vargas, works behind the counter while her long time friend, Brenda, is serving customers.
Cristal's husband, Rene Vargas, sits down to share some of the history of the restaurant but when I tell him it's my first time at the restaurant he orders multiple dishes for me to eat. Every dish is lovingly laid out and packs a wallop of taste. It's difficult to refrain from eating and talk, but as soon as Cristal sits down with us and reaches back into her memory, it becomes clear that as good as the food is, her story's even richer. It's the story of countless immigrants to the United States, one of struggle, hard work, and risk taking. It follows the Horatio Alger myth but with a bit of twist and loads of aguachile, a spicy Sinaloan-style ceviche.
Raised in Escuinapa, Sinaloa, Mexico, the sea and its bounty were an integral part of Cristal's upbringing. The area just south of Mazatlan is known for fresh seafood and a unique style of food that harnesses the flavors of the sea and nearby mountains. Cristal's grandfather was a fisherman who would routinely bring home the catch of the day, fresh shrimp. Cristal recalls how the shrimp were quickly cleaned and boiled, "Then he would toss the shrimp on the table for the entire family to feast on." Cristal would watch how her grandmother prepared the shrimp in aguachile, noting the seasonings and how the ingredients were combined. Cristal soon developed her own technique and favorite flavors, and a habit for trying new combinations. It was all a matter of combining the ingredients and flavors that were most pleasing and satisfying for her own taste. She remembers how this was the beginning of the experimentation and risk-taking that continues to inform her cooking to this day.
Cristal first traveled to the United States as a teenager. Her grandparents now living just east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley asked her to visit and stay while her grandmother recuperated from an operation. She planned to return home to finish high school and re-start her life in Sinaloa, but things quickly changed. She made friends, got a job. Soon, she worked as a waitress at various restaurants to contribute to her family's income.
By 2012 Cristal was a single parent with two daughters and was living and working as a waitress at Sushi Loco in La Puente. Her schedule was tight with only an hour break to pick up her daughters from school, rush them home, and then return for the evening shift at the restaurant. It was a challenge to get back to the restaurant on time. Eventually, refusing to give her flexibility in her schedule, management let her go.
Out of work, Cristal had to quickly figure out a way to make ends meet.
As she pondered on her next step, she remembered seeing plenty of food vendors on local streets selling their food to factory workers during their lunch breaks. Street vendors are a staple of the Latino immigrant community providing a livelihood to countless entrepreneurs, many of whom are women that utilize their skill set, whatever it may be, to reach for the American Dream. Recent statistics show that there are from 10,000 to 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles alone. This informal economic sector, often referred to as the shadow economy, is a grey zone of activity that provides both opportunity and hazards for those that participate. Exploitation and the lack of legal designation persist but ultimately the need and survival instincts trump the risks. The shadow economy not only provides opportunity but also a cushion for the larger formal economy.
For Cristal it soon became part of her survival strategy.
Cristal knew people liked her food, especially her ceviche. Friends had told her countless times she should start a business. After all, no one was selling authentic Escuinapa-style food. With the support of her friend Brenda and a fifty dollar contribution from her grandparents, Cristal purchased and pulled together what she needed to make ceviche "estilo Escuinapa" to sell. Borrowing Brenda's car she drove to where workers congregated and opened the trunk of the car to sell her food. Within a couple of hours all the food was gone and a new path was laid out for Cristal.
Beginning a business, formal or informal was a risk in in 2012. The economy in L.A. County, specifically in La Puente, was still hurting from the persistent recession enveloping the entire Country. For Cristal, and others like her, starting a business, legal or illegal, is part of the ongoing immigrant hustle. This undercurrent of the formal local economy provides a temporary livelihood for some and a more permanent solution to others looking for a viable way of life. Either way it provides fuel to a stagnant economy and keeps individuals and families afloat. Keeping her head above water was Cristal's main motivation, "I had to take the risk, it wasn't easy, but I knew I had to take every opportunity. I was fortunate to have people who supported me early on."
Word began to spread about Cristal's ceviche and a growing number of people started looking for her and her parked car to buy her food. She began to see the demand for her food as an opportunity to do what she liked while earning a living. She took the big step of starting a weekend restaurant at her apartment. Primarily designed for family and friends, she set up a few tables and chairs on her patio and starting serving seafood specialties from her hometown.
Freedom and Risk
Throughout this time Cristal had the freedom to work out her recipes, experiment with new ideas and find her own style and technique that funneled her grandmother's recipes and the tradition of Escuinapa. Cristal tells the story of going out to eat with friends and having a plate of lemon pepper shrimp. "They were good but they were missing something. I knew I could make them better." She took time to work out the recipe, asking her patrons to taste them and tell her what they thought. She took their insight along with her own tastes into consideration and developed a dish that became a staple at her establishment.
For her signature dish, El Cristalazo, the inspiration came from an oversized martini glass she found and a curiosity of what could fill the massive cup. Seafood cocktails in Escuinapa look and taste nothing like the dainty shrimp cocktails many of us have become accustomed. Cristal took the chance to showcase that difference with El Cristalazo, which overflows with fish and shrimp ceviche, aguachile, scallops, and avocado. The taste and the image became an integral part of her cuisine.
The informality of the restaurant allowed Cristal to tailor dishes for her patrons as well as test her new creations. The dedication to her clientele and to innovative food kept spreading and soon the apartment gave way to a house that had a larger patio and offered more seating and comfort for her customers. Simultaneously she began to cater events and take part in regional food competitions.
Over the course of the following year attendance was steady, with word of mouth keeping a smooth flow of new customers. One of these new guests offered to help promote the business through social media. Reluctant at first, Cristal wasn't sure how it would benefit or possibly hurt her business. She was cautious of the exposure it could stir, but with the encouragement of Rene, whom she had recently married, she decided to try it. Soon photos of her food began circulating all over Instagram, with customers posting and reposting their photos of their favorite dishes and rave reviews online. What once was a consistent stream of customers became a flood with parties waiting up to an hour or more for their chance to sit and enjoy a plate of lemon pepper shrimp in Cristal's backyard.
Attention starting pouring in from print and broadcast outlets. Cristal's food was being written about by local bloggers and food critics alike, increasing the attention on her food and her clandestine establishment. Her unique take on her hometown's food was winning over foodies and regulars alike. To accommodate the growing number of customers Cristal hired several people, including family, friends, and former co-workers to help her get the food on the tables. She was becoming an economic engine as well as a food entrepreneur. Her dedication to her employees and customers developed a committed following. Everyone was aware that the enterprise was flying below the radar. The restaurant began to get visits from some of their competitors and they feared one of them might blow the whistle. Cristal recounts one story when customers pretended to be guests at a house party to shield her and her business from a suspicious and questioning customer. "I was taken aback by their quick thinking and their willingness to protect me and the restaurant."
Cristal had built a thriving community around her innovative cuisine. The risks she had taken were paying off with customers and food admirers all around, but the stress was growing. She felt responsible for her employee's livelihoods just as much as she did for her own. Both she and Rene knew there was a chance they could be closed down any day. They considered starting a "legitimate" restaurant but just didn't have the necessary funds. So they continued their routine, hoping for the best.
In December 2014, Cristal received notice from the L.A. County Public Health Department to stop operation of her home restaurant. The thriving social media output, press, word of mouth, and competitor's suspicious visits, finally caught up to them and brought the endeavor crashing down. Cristal had a premonition on the day of the health department's visit but was still devastated by the closure. "It was what I loved doing and thinking that I wouldn't be able to continue was so hard."
Cristal and Rene appeared at the County Public Health Department hearing expecting the worst. A big portion of the evidence that was presented was from social media. All the delicious food photos admirers had posted, played like a history of the restaurant. "People from the County were surprised by the amount of followers we had online and kept joking about how the pictures were making them hungry. They asked about the food and the conditions of the kitchen and restaurant." Everything felt lost to Cristal and Rene, until something unexpected happened. Instead of the full penalty they could have received from the County, they instead gave them an opportunity to become legitimate restauranteurs. The County encouraged them to identify a brick-and-mortar location for their restaurant and apply for all the necessary licenses immediately.
Surprised and unprepared for this, Cristal and Rene nonetheless quickly started to pull together all the necessary pieces to open a legitimate business. The most difficult piece to acquire was the funding, just as it had been the first time they tried to open a legal restaurant. This time, however, it was two of their longtime customers who stepped up and contributed the loan that allowed them to move forward. It was a testament to the strong commitment and dedication they had shown their patrons, that it was they who helped establish the next phase of their business. The hustle paid off, and by late January they were ready to have their soft opening for their new and legal operation in a busy strip mall in La Puente.
Now almost a year later, Mariscos El Cristalazo is running smoothly. The large crowds have subsided but there is still a consistent flow of customers fueled by their seventeen thousand Instagram followers and the ongoing raves from the food press. Cristal takes a breath and reflects on how far they've come, "The kitchen here and the kitchen at the house were about the same size but it always seemed so crowded there. We were always bumping into each other and laughing. Now we have everything organized like a professional kitchen... I had to re-learn how to do so many things so that we were following all the rules. It's been difficult but I'm happy where we are at. Brenda is still working with me and my family is still a big part of everything we do. There are things I miss from before, but overall I'm happy."
I ask Cristal and Rene if they are planning to expand the business, open new restaurants outside of La Puente. They take a moment to think about the question. "It's something we've thought about and discussed, but right now we're focused on making this place as successful as possible."
So the American Dream for Cristal and Rene does not wrap up nicely with bowtie but continues to evolve as they meet ongoing challenges and seek out new successes. Whether as part of the formal or informal economy there focus is the same, -- to do what they love, and take care of themselves and their family.
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