Fast Fine; A Portrait of a Restaurant During Pandemic.

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; 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 and most authentic 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 restaurateur now. Here is the conversation with Carolina and David from April 2021:

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 and 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 contact-less takeout, so people trusted us and felt comfortable ordering from us.  

David: I agree—and the fact that we’re small and not a huge business in the city, our costs aren’t huge.  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 take out.

How much of your business has been takeout/online orders?

Carolina: The numbers completely flipped from 2019-2020. We closed the dinning room for a year during the pandemic and only had five outdoor tables. Before Covid we weren’t focused on takeout because we like to serve our food fresh;  our ideal way of serving food is on a plate at the restaurant.  But, luckily, we launched delivery a couple of months before Covid and were already setup because our customers kept asking for it.  I was apprehensive as the platforms take a 30% cut.  We had to raise the prices to compensate; we don’t have a high profit margin, due to the high quality ingredients (grass-fed beef etc.) we use.

How did you decide on Takoma Park for your location?

It kind of fell into our laps—this used to be a Subway sandwich shop.  We moved here from the Bay Area, temporarily, to be nearer to my parents to help with our baby daughter. Three days later, my dad said, “This might sound crazy, but there’s a Subway sandwich shop for lease on the main Takoma Park strip that would be great for your taqueria concept, and you won’t have to do much cause’ it’s already a kitchen.”  We had to do a lot; gut the whole place, install a kitchen because Subway is not really a kitchen, just a convection oven.  We were planning to open a restaurant in five years, but it’s never really the perfect time to open your own restaurant, so when the opportunity came up, we thought we could either get random jobs or start something of our own.  So we jumped on it, took a chance and followed our dreams.

What’s inspiring you?

Carolina: Committing to our dream of making Cielo Rojo and seeing it realized.  Feeling grateful that we are still here and alive and that we made it through this crazy year.

David: Food, food is always inspiring to us. But personally, I don’t think there’s anything that’s particularly inspiring me right now;  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 stress due to Covid, which you sense and feel—how it’s changed peoples relationships.  It makes you reflect internally and take care of your mental health.  I’ve never been more stressed in my life—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 the stress of everyday life; so what’s your relief as restaurateurs, do you eat out?

Carolina and David: We haven’t that much.  Maybe on our day off.  Now that we are vaccinated we have to do things that make us feel we have a life outside of work.  We need to treat ourselves and reflect on how to move forward.

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

David:  The magic isn’t really there without the human interaction and connection. We miss people being our guests; we like to think we are taking care of you when you’re eating in our restaurant. That social bond and connection is what fuels me.  It makes all the hard work—the stress, the physical labor of prepping the food, the emotional energy that goes into it—all worth it. You can 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 see people’s reaction to your cooking.  It’s what makes you show up everyday.

So without the social experience of a restaurant, the magic is gone?

Carolina:  A little bit, yes.  It has created more teamwork with our staff, because that is the social interaction now.  I can’t imagine having worked isolated and alone at home with my computer this past year.  I had community with our staff.

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

We only had one part-time bartender leave when Covid first hit.  He basically worked at Cielo Rojo for fun—his day job was a mortgage broker.  But everybody else stayed.

Have you created any new dishes this year?

David: No, I had to hold back and stop creating; we’re producing food so fast now, because everything is takeout.  I don’t have time.

Carolina: We do seven or eight orders every fifteen minutes; we cut back on specials because it throws a wrench in the flow.

David: We’ll do them again when things stabilize. Specials are an opportunity to explore new ideas, ingredients, tastes, and regions of Mexican cuisine.  There’s so much richness in Mexican cuisine it’s incredible.

What’s a dish you haven’t been able to have that you’re craving?

David: Pollo con Mole. It’s a very traditional dish: it can be roasted or pan fried, chicken with sauce on top, rice on the side, and tortillas.  You don’t need a fork or knife, you can just pull the chicken off with your fingers and make tacos with it.

Do you have time to cook at home?

David: No, I don’t have the energy.  All of my energy goes into cooking and maintaining the balance of Cielo Rojo.  When I go home I’m just tired and want to be with my daughter.  Maybe I’ll 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 and feel like a cafeteria and I did not want that. I aimed 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.  It’s obviously inspired by Mexican design; it’s all Mexican in here.

David:  You see a dish and you have to be attracted to it to want to eat it.  Carolina is always pushing for things to be more aesthetically and visually inviting and beautiful.

What do you suggest from your kitchen?

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

Beer or wine?

Carolina:  Mezcal.

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