Celebrity chef Isabel Cruz, beyond the whites

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    Chef isabel cruz

    Chef Isabel Cruz (Photos courtesy of Isabel Cruz)

    Perhaps she isn’t your typical celebrity chef, but she’s the kind of chef you’d fall in love with—down to earth, humble and full of passion and creativity. You might also know her as the “Taco Lady”— yes, tacos are her weakness, and most likely you’ve seen her wearing one of her famous “I {heart} Tacos” t-shirts. Her cuisine is far from pretentious, it is “simple, fresh, Latin food,” said Isabel Cruz in a recent interview with VOXXI. And if you want to get know her better, she is one of the top culinary celebrities that will be participating in the Latin Food Festival, a six-city culinary tour that will take place in San Diego on September 12-15, 2013.

    “Food is my passion. At breakfast I’m thinking about lunch. At lunch I’m thinking about dinner. I love the shopping, the preparing and the eating. I love the joy of a great meal. OK, I don’t love the cleaning up,” says Cruz on her website.

    Meet Isabel Cruz: Author, chef and restaurateur

    Isabel Cruz is a restaurateur, chef and author of “Isabel’s Cantina” (Clarkson Potter, Random House). Her self-titled cookbook was named among the “Top 25 Notable Cookbooks of 2007” in the New York Times as well as “Best of the Best” in Food and Wine’s Top 25 Cookbooks in 2007. But beyond her achievements, at the core of her being, she is a passionate, curious, foodie and cook.

    Cruz grew up in Los Angeles in a Latino family where the large and frequent gatherings were always around food.

    “We love to eat and cook. Everybody in my family cooks. In my family, they cook until they drop,” said Cruz in a recent interview with VOXXI.

    Self-taught, friends and family from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico became the early influences of her food. “I have no formal training, just my passion which is key for success. I just cook those things I grew up with and I learned how to eat and love.”

    Cruz explained that besides learning from her family, the later inspiration from working on the line at different restaurants, traveling and stemming from the Japanese, Korean and Thai cooking styles Cruz started to redefine herself as a cook. “While growing up in Los Angeles, I got exposed to what the city is: A melting pot of flavors and cultures,” she said. “My sole inspiration are the bold Latin flavors I find in the Latin cuisine.”

    And eventually, those Latin and Asian influences became infused in Cruz’s cooking, resulting in fresh, exotic food with bold and unique flavors. “My menu has everything I love to eat, with a twist of conscious and healthy. And it is that Latin food is so full of flavor that you don’t need to add any butter or cream. My parents never did. It’s all there already.”

    Taking these fusions to the next level, Cruz started incorporating modifications in her menus, transforming these traditional, rich cuisines and dishes into healthier dishes for the everyday life. Yes, her cuisine, as she defines “it is simple, with fresh ingredients that anyone can make at home. I love simple recipes, with only a few, fresh ingredients bursting with fresh flavors.”

    chicken taco, Chef Isabel Cruz

    Chef Isabel Cruz’s Chicken Tacos (Photos courtesy of Isabel Cruz)

    Her creative process is also quite simple. She creates her recipes as she speaks adding always some “olive oil, cilantro, lime, and garlic,” and they are based on what she calls “my fave base ingredients because it is all you need. Just add it to your dish and you are good to go.” Explaining that to create something new add some chile.

    “I love rice and beans with a piece of roasted chicken and some fresh salsa with an Asian twist. It’s so easy and simple. It satisfies every part of my body, it’s just so good.”

    But rice and beans isn’t her favorite dish. Her weakness? Tacos and tequila. “Oh, tacos!” she says laughing… “You can do and put anything on a taco…! Think of a crunchy roasted beef taco with fresh crispy lettuce on a homemade corn tortilla with onions, salsa and cilantro, served with a shot of tequila on the rocks with fresh lime… you got the best fine dining experience!”

    Today, Cruz owns a farm and five restaurants, all sharing Mexican roots.

    Two of the restaurants—Dragonfly, Isabel Pearl—and a farm (Stargazer Farm) are located in Oregon. “The farm, was a dream we (my husband and I) had, we always wanted to do that, but if owning a restaurant is hard, working the farm is even harder!”

    The other three are located in California: Coffee Cup, in La Jolla—the first restaurant Cruz opened “in the late ’90s, somewhere between 1997 or 1998,”  and recently named to Locale Magazine’s “8 Places to Get Some of The Best Breakfast in San Diego.” Then there’s Isabel’s Cantina in San Diego, Calif.; and Barrio Star, the newest of all, located also in San Diego. At Barrio Star, “everything is made from scratch, is all homemade Mexican cuisine,” said Cruz. Barrio Star will be participating in the Taste of Latin Food Fest event where Cruz will be presenting what she calls “something very simple,” or to be more specific “homemade tortilla chips with a thin piece of (local, yet to be determined) fish crudo with avocado, cilantro lime sauce and a sliver of red chile.”

    Interesting facts about the Latina chef

    • She is American with Puerto Rican roots, but “I feel I’m Mexican, I feel very connected with both, Latin and Mexican culture and food.”
    • In 2007, Cruz published her first cookbook, “Isabel’s Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen,” and she did it “without having a clue what I was getting into,” she recalls. “Somebody asked me to do it; Random House called me for an interview, and after explaining to them (Random House) about my cuisine, I got an offer.” It was “literally, one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Though a great learning experience.”
    • Cruz prepares and creates new recipes at home. “I’m too slow on the line now, there’s always so much going on at the restaurants all the time, I can’t cook there. So I create them at home and then I teach the recipes.” Right now, she is working on updating the menus. “I’m simplifying them and making them more seasonal.”

    Finally, we spoke to Chef Isabel Cruz about participating in the Chef Throwdown at the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST!. “Honestly, I have no idea what that is or what I’ll have to do, but I like the name, it sounds fun.”

    Here’s our Q&A with the Latina chef:

    Q&A with Chef Isabel Cruz

    Q: Do you think festivals like Latin Food Festival are overall relevant and important for the community?

    A: Absolutely. I think festivals like this one are key to bring all kinds of people—both foodies and not— and our people together, to gather as Latinos, to share our roots and cultural diversity. It’s super important to get exposed to Latin culture first hand and educate palates, so they can see how diverse and emerged into food we are… Oh, I’m very excited and humbled to be part of it.

    Q: What are you bringing to the festival?

    A: I’m bringing my food which is my message: Simple, fresh, delicious, very Latin, that you can make yourself.

    Q: What are you expecting to get out of the festival?

    A: To have fun—it’s going to be a very fun event, with something for everybody; to learn new things from my peers, share and connect with them and people… and of course, have time to attend some of the amazing events…if not all, at least the Tequila seminars! I am so looking forward to it!

    Latin Food Fest

    Where to find Chef Cruz at Latin Food Fest

    At the Chef Throwdown one of her restaurants, Barrio Star, will be participating in the Taste of Latin Food Fest event on Saturday September, 14 at PETCO Park, San Diego, Calif. And aside from the events, according to her, at the Tequila seminars as well!

    About the Latin Food Fest

    From September 12-15, 2013, the Latin Food Festival will bring together more than 70 wineries, distillers, chefs, restaurants and artisan food makers to educate palates and entertain guests with the best of Baja food while gathering resources to fight hunger in San Diego and deliver drinkable water to Baja.

    Tickets range from $45 to $300 depending on the event and package. To learn more about Latin Food Festival, visit LatinFoodFest.com.

    Isabel Cruz’s Fruit with Tequila Honey Sauce

    Fruit with Tequila Honey Sauce, Chef isabel cruz

    Chef Isabel Cruz’s Fruit with Tequila Honey Sauce (Photos courtesy of Isabel Cruz)


    Servings vary

    1/4 cup honey

    1/2 cup gold tequila

    4 oranges peeled and sliced into half circles

    1 pint raspberries

    1 mango peeled and cubed

    2 kiwis, peeled and sliced into half circles

    1/4 cup chopped mint and or cilantro

    1 serrano chile sliced into thin circles, optional

    1/4 cup honey

    1/2 cup gold tequila (add more or less to taste)


    Whisk honey and tequila together, set aside. Gently toss fruit, mint and or cilantro and serrano (optional) together, drizzle with tequila honey sauce. Serve.

    To learn more about Isabel Cruz, visit IsabelsCantina.com.

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