Neighborhood Flavor profiles the people behind the familiar restaurants, bars and food businesses of the Eastside
Boyle Heights -- You might know Felipe, 31, and Ignacio, 28, Santiago for their Oaxacan-arabesque tacos and dishes in Boyle Heights.
These two brothers grew-up only speaking Zapotec in a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico. Felipe who had been working since he was in fifth grade, left Mexico when he was 14 years old and started as a busboy in Southern California kitchens. Nacho followed behind him several years later.
Overcoming not only the barrier of having to learn Spanish in Mexico and English in the U.S., but fighting against the stigma of being "ghetto" or "cheap," the Santiago brothers work hard every day to produce fresh high quality dishes at X'tiosu Kitchen.
Today it's been nearly three years since they opened X'tiosu, which in Zapotec means "thank you." In a Q&A, Nacho and Felipe share their experience opening their first restaurant.
How would you describe each other?
Nacho: Felipe is my big brother so he bosses me around! Haha --- But honestly, Felipe is my role model and he protects me!!!
Felipe: He's only saying that I boss him around because I have to make sure things run smoothly.
Nacho: He works so hard, We only have one day off. On Mondays when I am spending time with my daughters, he's usually off at restaurant equipment stores or the places where we buy the imported items, making sure that none of our supplies run low. He always protects me. I feel really comfortable working with him. There were days when we got harassed by people for a whole lot of different things -- like speaking Zapotec or because they wanted to use our X'tiosu Kitchen parking overnight -- but he's always there to make sure I am safe.
The other day he brought me some new restaurant safe work shoes, so he's a good guy. We ALMOST never fight. Even though there are some days when the stress level is to the sky ... we make a joke and then we laugh again. Felipe is the KING of the grape leaf tamales and the tabbouleh at X'tiosu Kitchen. He likes a good challenge, like cutting meat for kabobs or figuring out how to fix our new kitchen machines.
Felipe: Nacho is the KING of flavor at X'tiosu Kitchen. He is really careful with the flavors that go into our food, he tastes things and because he's a really picky eater (big brother speaking here). He makes sure that things are top notch.
Nacho knows his way around in the kitchen. If you love the hummus or the toum (garlic sauce) that's Nacho who sometimes comes in extra early, like at 4 am, to make sure that our hummus is fresh for the day. We go shopping and all the people in our vegetable run ... hug Nacho, like he's a VEGGIE rock star. That means he's doing something to let people know that he's 'one of us' ... hard working man of the people.
What made you decide to open your own business?
Nacho: We were tired of being exploited and abused by our employers. At our old job, we worked 16 hours, and there were some days when we worked 20 hours. We never got paid overtime, and we were just barely making a little over minimum wage. We needed to change things.
One day when my baby was about to be born, I asked for a raise, and they said they would give me another 25 cents. So I took off my apron and told them that was my last day at their restaurant. My partner, Xochitl Flores-Marcial (she brought the exhibit Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA to our city), encouraged me to follow my dreams. My dreams were to own my own business. But I was afraid of exposing myself to all the hate that we saw after the 2016 elections.
We had NO MONEY and no safety network. We work so hard, we don't hurt anyone, we pay our taxes. We thought it was important to keep ourselves safe and try to start a business that would allow us to provide, not just for ourselves but for the family that depends on us.
Our parents live in Oaxaca, Mexico, we have not seen them in over 10 years. We thought it was time to do SOMETHING.
Felipe: Xochitl and Nacho asked friends and family if they would lend us money. We got a total of $15,000 in loans from people who know how hard we work. They were willing to wait 6 months for us to pay them back. We paid everyone in less than 6 months time. Xochitl said she would help us in case we could not pay rent. We did not take a salary during the first 6 months of our business, we definitely lost a lot of money (sometimes we could not even afford our gas for transportation). And even when we started making a little money, it was only enough to cover the basic costs, like rent or gas and water & power.
What was X'tiosu Kitchen like when you first opened?
We opened on August 20, 2017. But that first month we had absolutely NO BUSINESS. Our residential neighbors seemed to hate us ... they made sure we knew we were not wanted on the block.
On September 7, 2017, we cooked like we were going to feed 500 people, we went outside set up some tables and started handing out FREE food to people walking towards the library, the park and the bus-stop.
Our first "customer" was a dude who got off the bus. He had a little duffel bag. Xochitl called him over and said, "Want some FREE lunch?" He opened his eyes wide and said REALLY? Then he walked over and said he had just gotten out of jail. He'd been there who knows how long. He still had his jail wrist-band on. He said this was the first meal he was getting after jail. He kept on praising our food, and kept saying 'oh my god, so good!' Before he left, he said 'god bless you' ... we took that as a good omen. Then neighbors from the neighborhood kept showing up. Until we ran out of food for the day. The last people we served was a family, with babies who loved the hummus.
On October 5, an article by Samanta Helou was published in the LA Weekly. That day, we bought hamburger stuff because we were going to start selling burgers and fries (the little league families walking from the park across the street were telling us that's what we should sell on game days) ... but around 5:30 pm, people started showing up, asking for OUR menu. Nacho called Xochitl who was in Michoacan, Mexico for a work conference with Nacho's baby. The next day, when we arrived, we cleaned, started prepping, and there were people who were waiting outside knocking on our door. Others started leaving because they didn't see anyone inside. We had no idea what was happening. Nacho went outside to wash the tables and sweep (our daily chores)... and ran inside to tell Felipe that there was a crowd. Felipe said "YOU'RE CRAZY!" He went outside and ran back inside to prep for the next day. We were prepared for the rest of the week from that day forward.
What is the best part of owning your own business?
Nacho: No one tells me what to do, except Felipe.
Felipe: I'm the big brother, that's my responsibility!
What's the hardest part?
Nacho: Trying to explain to people why we cannot "substitute" things on our menu. EVERYTHING, all our produce during COVID-19 has tripled or in some cases quadrupled in price, like the meat, the lettuce, cauliflower have gotten incredibly expensive.
Felipe: People think it is "easy" to substitute things, and they think that because we are in East L.A., things should be cheap. But I wish they knew how hard we work. EVERYTHING is fresh. If we worked in the 'expensive areas' of L.A., they would not mind paying 5 times what we charge AND STILL LEAVE A TIP!!
We regularly get requests for catering but no matter how much we want (and are flexible) to work with their budgets... people expect a discount.... no consideration for us, our overhead costs and our labor.
On Yelp! you can see that people call us "ghetto," but we are working to produce food that is fresh and delicious and very high quality. We are multi-lingual Indigenous People, we speak Zapotec + English-Spanish...
We do have some messages of people encouraging us to move to the Westside, where we can charge more, but WE LIKE BEING IN ELA!!! We have no capital. We just wish people would take us seriously. We are REAL. We are Indigenous ZAPOTEC speaking peoples. The least the public can do is recognize our existence and our labor.
How have you been adapting to COVID?
Both: We added a website, and now you can order online ... we are only doing TAKE-OUT (which brings some additional expenses for the containers that we MUST use... we really really REALLY want to find eco-friendly options for our take-out packaging!)
What is your favorite item on the menu?
Nacho: I LOVE chicken shawarma with hummus and rice ... I don't eat a lot of meat, I'm kind of Mexican-Vegan because that's how we grew up... eating a lot of greens and veggies.
Felipe: Don't copy me! That's my favorite! --- I mix the salsas and really go to town with my creations.
Can you share a cooking tip for the readers?
If you DO NOT want your salsas to be spicy, put on some gloves and take out all the seeds from the chiles BEFORE you do anything else. Roasting is like the ultimate way to prepare your salsas.
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