National Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from September 15 to October 15. Today, we spotlight La Cocina, an inspiring San Francisco-based kitchen incubutor that’s helped develop food products, restaurants, for trucks, and food stall concepts since the 1990s.
For nearly 30 years, La Cocina has helped to launch the food businesses of immigrant women and women of color, all with the hope of providing opportunity and autonomy for talented chefs and entrepreneurs who face stiff barriers entering the industry.
The San Francisco-based non-profit has, to date, helped hundreds of businesses off their feet—from food trucks to packaged good companies, and more than 30 brick-and-mortar restaurants (and counting). La Cocina—which translates to “the kitchen” in Spanish—has done this by providing a physical kitchen space, industry know-how, and connections to startup capital for a group with the odds traditionally stacked against them when it comes to ownership.
We Are La Cocina: Recipes In Pursuit of the American Dream, $19 on Amazon
Now, and for the first time, La Cocina has published a compendium documenting 75 recipes from 40 alumni of the kitchen incubator entitled “We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream.” The narrative cookbook is a glimpse into these extraordinary women, where they’ve come from, and how they’ve worked hand in hand with La Cocina to realize a better life for themselves while enriching the country’s vast food tapestry.
One of those women is Isabel Caudillo, who immigrated from Mexico and joined La Cocina in 2007. She now owns and operates El Buen Comer on Mission Street in San Francisco with her family. In La Cocina’s new book, she shares a peak into her life, along with a recipe for killer meatballs in a chipotle sauce that just may change your mind about meatballs.
Reprinted from We Are La Cocina by Leticia Landa and Caleb Zigas with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019
“The chiles are burning,” Isabel Caudillo says, more calmly than you’d expect, as she makes her way to a stovetop covered with blistering poblano peppers. She pulls them off the fire and starts to peel them, her hands red and reflexively pulling away from the heat, but expertly pressing on, getting every last bit of blistered skin off the peppers. She looks up momentarily from her task and takes it all in: the restaurant she owns and the family members who surround her. Dinner service will begin soon, and there’s still a lot to do.
Juan Carlos, Isabel’s husband, watches over their oldest son Charlie’s shoulder as he works out the evening’s reservations on an iPad. Two of their other sons, Hansel and Vladimir, will be arriving soon to expedite and wait tables.
While the Caudillo men begin to ready the restaurant for customers, folding napkins and setting thick clay plates, glasses, and silverware at the restaurant’s forty-two seats, Isabel is busy in the kitchen alongside Alejandra and Ema, who have worked with her since she opened.
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Ema presides over the griddle, making sopes and tortillas. While the thick tortillas for the sopes warm up on the griddle, she makes thinner tortilla rounds, which she interleaves with sheets of plastic. Without a scale, and seemingly without even paying much attention, Ema makes tortillas that are all exactly the same size, stacking them into perfectly round towers. She had never made tortillas before working for Isabel. She calculates that in the last year she’s made around seventy-five thousand.
Alejandra and Isabel work together to make the guisados that Isabel is known for. Albóndigas, meatballs made in the Mexico City style, get rolled and then dropped into a pot of tomato sauce seasoned with chipotle. The large pot simmering behind the albóndigas has green mole in it. Isabel makes it herself every day, crushing pumpkin seeds with herbs, fresh greens, and serrano chiles and slowly cooking pork in the thick sauce that has become her specialty, the reason food critic Jon Kauffman called El Buen Comer the best Mexican restaurant to open in SF in 20 years. It’s also her son Hansel’s favorite. When he walks into the restaurant, he holds a plate up for Isabel to fill with the mole, rice, and beans, gets a couple of tortillas from Ema, and sits down to eat his staff meal at the bar.
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Charlie, Hansel, and Vladimir have been watching their mother cook and sell her mole since they were in grade school. As do many other immigrants who are particularly talented in the kitchen, Isabel ran an informal business out of the family’s apartment. She cooked a different guisado every day; made rice, beans, and tortillas; and sold plate lunches, comida corrida, in the style of many restaurants in Mexico City that are set up to serve home-style food to workers who can’t make it home for lunch. When the boys got home from school, they brought customers who sat on the living room couches with their plates from the kitchen. It was the youngest, Vladimir, who learned about La Cocina from a news program on TV and encouraged Isabel to apply. For eight years, every Saturday, rain or shine (and most often foggy), it was Vladimir who woke up at 6 a.m. and accompanied his parents in their white cargo van to pick up food from La Cocina and set up a tent at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market. He spoke English, and he could take the orders while Isabel and Juan Carlos cooked and his then-teenage brothers slept in.
Now, all three brothers work side by side, Charlie at the bar, Hansel in the space between the kitchen and dining room, making sure plates are perfect before handing them off to Vladimir, whose years of experience at the market prepared him to perfectly describe every dish and have made him a consummate waiter.
At 5 p.m., when the restaurant opens, Charlie opens the front door, places a chalkboard A-sign on Mission Street, and turns on the music. Romeo Santos crackles over the speaker. “Always dance music,” sighs Isabel, rolling her eyes while stirring the albóndigas.
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The night’s first table walks in: two men with a baby in a large stroller. It’s their first time here. They came because they heard the green mole was good. Vladimir goes over the menu with them, explaining the family-style service, how they can order rice, beans, and tortillas and share their food the way they would at home. The kitchen calmly spoons the food they order into decorated clay cazuelas. Ema heats up four tortillas and places them in a napkin inside a basket with a top woven to look like a sombrero surrounded by bright flowers. Hansel walks the food out to the table. “I hope you enjoy my mom’s cooking,” he says. They, and all of the many customers that start streaming in, certainly do.
Albóndigas (Meatballs) in Chipotle Tomato Sauce
A simple dish, easy to make and enjoy, especially in the winter, and a nice warm meal to have with rice for dinner.
Albóndigas in Chipotle Tomato Sauce
- ½ small onion, roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves ¼ cup mint leaves
- 2 eggs
- 2 pounds lean ground beef
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed For the Sauce
- 12 medium Roma tomatoes, quartered
- 3 chipotles in adobo sauce
- ½ small onion, roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
- ½ cup water
- Rice and beans, for serving
- In a food processor, pulse the onions, garlic, and mint until very finely chopped.
- Transfer this mixture to a large bowl and combine with the eggs.
- Add the ground beef and season with 2 teaspoons salt. Combine, using your hands.
- Using an ice cream scoop or a tablespoon, measure out 1½ to 2 tablespoons of the mixture per ball.
- In a large Dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Brown the meatballs in batches, turning occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes per batch.
- To make the sauce add the tomatoes, chipotles, onion, garlic, oil, salt, and water to a blender and pulse until it forms a smooth purée.
- Drain all but 2 tablespoons fat from the Dutch oven and heat over medium-high, then add the tomato-chipotle purée.
- Turn the heat to low and simmer for about 6 minutes. Season with salt.
- Add the meatballs and gently coat them with sauce. Cover and let simmer until the meatballs are cooked all the way through, about 15 minutes.
- Serve with rice and beans.
Header image by Eric Wolfinger