Fast-Fine: Has the Pandemic Forever Altered Dining Out?

Words and text by James Kendi

Some eat to live, others live to eat—in restaurants. I long to enjoy a meal in a crowded restaurant; listening to cascading conversations, observing the fashions of diners and staff, and savoring the tastes—delicious and unfettered from hand sanitizer. As restaurants reemerge, inviting us into their interiors, a sense of unease persists. What is dining out now?

Cielo Rojo, a charming Mexican restaurant in Takoma Park, Maryland, is the perfect spot to explore this question. Carolina and David, the founders and chef, serve deliciously unpretentious Mexican food as inviting as their personalities. Cielo Rojo opened one year before the Pandemic broke out and is still going strong. Carolina and David moved from the Bay Area to be closer to their family to help with their newborn child; on a whim, they discovered an ideal space for a restaurant, and three days later signed a lease and followed their culinary dreams. Cielo Rojo has become a local institution—a gem of a restaurant making some of the tastiest Mexican food in the DMV area. We spoke about their challenging experience of running a restaurant during the pandemic, how and why they’ve survived, and what it feels like to be a restauranteur now. Here is the conversation with Carolina and David:

Cielo Rojo is always busy; how have you survived the pandemic?

Carolina: We’re lucky because we’re in Takoma Park, a neighborhood and not somewhere like, Chinatown or downtown DC, where they rely on office workers for their business. When we initially opened, I was jealous of that, thinking we’d have a lot more people coming through if we were located there, because Takoma Park is more of a commuter community and a dinner/ brunch crowd. But we lucked out during Covid; we have a core following of supportive regulars and were strict about Covid guidelines and safety and adapted pretty quickly to no contact takeout from the get-go, so people trusted us and felt comfortable ordering from us. No restaurants in Takoma Park closed during Covid—that to me says the community showed up and supported everyone.

David: I agree. And the fact that we’re small and not a huge business in the city—our costs aren’t huge—so we were able to manage. We’re proud of what we offer; our food is fresh and tasteful and I think people appreciate that. And who doesn’t like margaritas and tacos? We’re not fine dining but are quality…what do you call it?

Carolina: Fast-fine.

David: Fast-fine. Mexican food is also pretty easy for carry out.

How much of your business has been to-go/online orders?

Carolina: The numbers completely flipped from 2019-2020. We closed the inside of the restaurant for an entire year during the pandemic and have only had five outdoor tables. Before Covid we weren’t very focused on takeout because we like to serve our food fresh—our ideal way of serving food is on a plate at the restaurant. We launched delivery a couple of months before Covid because our customers kept asking for it. I was apprehensive as the platforms take a lot of money (a 30% cut). We had to raise the prices on delivery to compensate, because we don’t have a huge profit margin; we use high quality ingredients (grass-fed beef, etc), so the 30% cut wouldn’t make sense. Luckily we began doing that before Covid, so were setup. But even so, online delivery platforms were only 6% of our sales. Mostly, they were takeout orders which was awesome; a lot of people chose to call in and pick orders up themselves which was good for the restaurant financially.

How did you decide on Takoma Park for your location?

Carolina: I knew the area—my parents work here—and thought it would be fitting for our vision and concept. But it kind of fell in our laps; this used to be a Subway sandwich shop. We decided to move here from the Bay Area, temporarily, to be near my parents to help with our daughter. Three days later, my dad said, “this might sound crazy, but there’s a Subway Sandwich shop for lease on the main strip in Takoma Park, it would be a good fit for your taqueria concept, and you won’t have to do much since it’s already a kitchen.” That’s not true, we had to do a lot; gut the whole place, install a kitchen, cause’ Subway’s not really a kitchen, just a convection oven. So we just took a chance. We were planning to open a restaurant in, like five years, but you know it’s never really the perfect time to open your own restaurant or business, so when this opportunity came, we thought we could either get random jobs or start something of our own. So we jumped on it, followed our dream.

What’s inspiring you?

Carolina: Committing to our dream of making Cielo Rojo and seeing it realized. Having the patience to see it return to normal—maybe it won’t ever return to normal or
how it was before—but to somewhat of a normal dining experience. Feeling grateful that we made it through this year and that we’re still here and alive.

David: Food, we love food; food is always inspiring. But personally I don’t think there’s something that’s particularly inspiring me right now; I know that we have to keep going and it’s more about the survival instinct that kicks in and makes us continue. We have a lot at stake; all the energy and resources we’ve put into Cielo Rojo and taking care of our employees. There’s a lot of internal checking in due to Covid and how it’s affected people and made their relationships very different. There’s a lot of stress which you sense and feel, which makes you reflect internally. I’ve never been more stressed in my life, which forces me to look inside and try and take care of my mental health. It’s crazy.

Carolina: All of our mental health has suffered collectively this year. Maybe we’ll come out stronger.

Restaurants and bars are a form of escape from everyday reality and stress for many people. So what’s your relief as restauranteurs, do you go out to eat?

Carolina and David: Right now? We haven’t that much. Maybe on our day off. Now that we’re vaccinated we need to commit to doing things that make us feel we have a life outside of work. We need to treat ourselves for all the hard work and reflect on how we want to move forward. It’s easy to forget how crazy a year it’s been.

What do you miss about eating in restaurants in the ‘before world’?

David: The magic isn’t really there without human contact and interaction. We miss people sitting down and being our guests. We like to think we’re taking care of you when you’re eating in our restaurant—that social bond and connection is what gives me a good feeling and fuels me—it makes all the hard work and effort of running a restaurant, the stress, the physical labor of prepping the food, the emotional energy that goes into it, all worth it.

Carolina: I miss having people sit at the bar—our regulars. I’m seeing them come to the patio, but it’s a little more separate. We have an open kitchen for a reason; so the kitchen staff can feel. They can’t see anything going on now—they’re just cooking and don’t see the guests faces as they eat the food. It’s created a separation.

David: It’s not as fun anymore. You can love food and be passionate about cooking but it’s the human contact that is necessary. You don’t want to just do the same repetitive thing over and over. You want to look up and see people interacting and their reaction to your cooking. It’s what makes you continue to show up everyday.

So would you say eating out is a social experience?

Carolina and David: Definitely, absolutely.

And without that social experience, the magic is gone?

Carolina: A little bit. It’s created more teamwork with our staff because that’s the social interaction now. I’m glad we got to work this whole year, because I can’t imagine having worked alone at home on a computer with my personality. It’s been nice to have human interaction even though it’s been stressful and scary at times. It’s nice to have had community with our staff the whole time.

Has it been a consistent team for the past year, or have people left due to Covid?

Carolina: We only had one part-time bartender leave when Covid first hit. He basically worked at Cielo Rojo for fun—he has a full-time job as a mortgage broker and decided to work from home for safety reasons. But everybody else stayed; some were scared and stayed home when the numbers were bad and they didn’t feel comfortable, but then came back when things improved and got safer.

Have you created new dishes in the past year?

David: No, I had to hold back and stop creating. Before, I would always find inspiration in restaurants, books, social media—everywhere. There’s so much richness in Mexican cuisine, it’s incredible what can be offered. Before Covid, we had specials all the time, which is an opportunity to explore new ideas, ingredients, tastes, culture, and regions of Mexican cuisine. But we had to stop because we’re producing food really fast now as everything is to go and takeout.

Carolina: We do seven or eight orders every fifteen minutes. So we have to balance how many orders go to each station, the tortilleria the sauté station—it’s like a balancing act of what the kitchen can handle. We cut back on specials because it throws a wrench in the flow.

David: We decided to go with our menu—we believe in it, it’s pretty strong and shines by itself. But it’s just a temporary break. We’ll do specials again when things stabilize.

What’s a dish you haven’t had in a while that you’re craving?

David: Let me think…maybe Pollo con Mole—we haven’t had that dish around. It’s a very traditional dish; it can be roasted or pan fried, chicken with sauce on top, rice on the side, tortillas. You don’t even need a fork or knife, you can just break it off with your fingers and make tacos with it.

Do you have time to cook at home?

David: No, I don’t have time and I don’t have the energy. All my energy goes into the restaurant, cooking and maintaining the balance of Cielo Rojo. When I go home I’m just tired, I want to relax and be with my daughter. I’ll definitely make myself a sandwich or an egg and rice, but nothing laborious.

Cielo Rojo has such a unique aesthetic, which is reflected in the food—the beautiful purple tortillas—and the restaurant’s physical space and design. Can you talk about that?

Carolina: That’s my passion, the aesthetics. There are a lot of casual restaurants that don’t have a warm environment—it feels like a cafeteria when you walk in—and I did not want that. I was aiming for an inviting place, where you want to meet up with friends, go on a date, feel warm and cozy, but also be casual, because I like that feeling of non-pretension, so it feels more like a home. It’s like getting inspired by an art gallery; you go in, you see art, you feel it. Here, it’s art through the plate. And it’s obviously inspired by Mexican design; it’s all Mexican art here.

David: Carolina comes from a family of architects and has a great eye for aesthetics and design. She did everything here: I can take credit for the food, but even with that,
she’s aesthetically pushing for things to be more visually attractive, beautiful, and inviting.

Carolina: He gets annoyed with me about it sometimes!

David: You see something, you have to be attracted to it to want to eat it.

What do you suggest from your kitchen at Cielo Rojo?

Carolina: The Birria de Rez, the carne asada tacos, and the Pozole are my favorites. Or the cheese enchiladas with mole sauce, so you can really taste the mole.

What’s Birria?

David: The Birria is grass fed beef short rib quesadillas, served with a beef consumé to dip them in. The Chilaquiles are also something you need to have from the brunch menu. It’s a very traditional dish, that I think started in order to preserve tortillas, as they began to harden, so they don’t go to waste.

Beer or wine?

Carolina: Mezcal.

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