Spread the love

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Written By: Christopher McDonald

Photographed by: Jennifer Dean

The Expert: Alex Eusebio

Credentials: Co-Owner of Cascabel and Sweetsalt Food Shop

Guilty Pleasure: The New York Jets

It’s been five rewarding years since Alex Eusebio and wife, Sara Mann, opened up Toluca Lake’s picnic-style sandwich and bakery café, Sweetsalt Food Shop. Now the season five “Top Chef” alum has introduced a second eatery to the San Fernando Valley neighborhood, the Latin, seafood-infused Cascabel. The eatery sits on the western edge of Toluca Lake, which is home to many famous faces like Steve Carell, 50 Cent, Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Love Hewitt and the Bob Hope Estate. Cascabel boasts an eclectic menu where you can satisfy your palate with Fried Chicken Tacos, Duck Confit Tacos, Short Rib Mole and Smoked Bacon Guacamole. But the accentuation is on their coastal Mexican cuisine, which includes Crab & Shrimp Enchiladas, Salmon Crudo, and fresh ceviche that is to die for.

The rustic tavern has a deliberate home-style feel reminiscent of a Mazatlan home. The walls echo a Spanish-style church with stained-glass windows that cast a warm aura of iridescence. Square wooden tables are spread evenly across the dining area, eliminating the encroachment of neighboring parties, yet the tables are easily slapped together for a communal feel. A back room takes the comfort a step further with its loveseats and oil painting portraits of generic Mexican citizens of all walks of life. Separating the dining rooms is a modern bar with an assortment of wine, rum, and other fine liquors. The finishing touch is a wall-to-wall drawing of a charcoal cascabel, which means “rattlesnake, ” that you might initially miss because of its expansive spread throughout the restaurant.

We sat down with Alex, who explained how he craftily developed a concoctive cuisine from his mainland Spanish origins, Dominican Republic upbringing and Mexican travels. He also candidly opened up about working with family, his somewhat extemporaneous style of creating recipes and preparing food, and why 9/11 almost kept him from a successful culinary career.

cascabel-8

Q: Toluca Lake is well-known for being one of the rare “community” neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Why’d you choose this location to open two restaurants?

Alex Eusebio: I love The Valley. I think it has a lot of cool things to offer. I’ve always thought about going downtown—to Santa Monica or Hollywood—but at the end of the day, The Valley is home. I’m a believer of making your best at home. It’s natural.

Q: What can you tell me about the atmosphere you’ve chosen for Cascabel?

AE: This looks like my house. We came in here and fell in love with the décor, and were like, “You know what? Let’s make our home open to the public.” We had no marketing plan or business plan. We just went for it. I’m from back east, and here the restaurant scene is very stale. It’s awesome, but every restaurant looks the same. We are trying to be the complete opposite. We want to be who we are.

Q: Tell me about your upbringing and how it influenced your menu choices?

AE: I’m from the Dominican Republic. My wife took me to Mexico, and I realized it’s the same culture of the Caribbean. When you’re Latin, you’re Latin. It’s different cultures, but let’s not paint it a different color. Me being from a very poor background in the Dominican Republic is the same thing as someone beingpoor from Mexico. We have the same attributes—trying to get clean water, wearing kicks instead of Nikes, but also enjoying what we have. We enjoy the natural beauty of our country. We have the same fresh fish, the same ingredients, and the same cooking style. That plus my background influenced my cuisine here. It comes from the soul. I don’t have to do a lot of research because it comes naturally.

Q: What item on your menu would you most recommend to first-timers?

AE: A ceviche is my personal favorite because it’s a delicate dish, and we have several options. It’s a little different than going to sushi. You’re going to want to start with that here to prep your palate. Also, everyone’s favorite is fried chicken. I had a restaurant a couple years ago that had my recipe for fried chicken on the menu, and people loved it, so I said, “Let’s put this in a taco. Instead of having just a chicken taco, let’s push the envelope a little bit—make it comfortable, approachable and good.” People love the Fried Chicken Tacos. It’s been one of our staples. If you want to taste my flavor, the mole is very unique, and it’s very me.

Q: What can you tell me about the rest of your team?

AE: When creating a restaurant, I take a family approach, so I call on friends and past employees. It’s important in this business to create a family environment; combining people who respect and work well with each other usually leads to something wonderful. My team consists of the cooks that I had at Sweetsalt and people I’ve worked with for ten years at other places. Because our business plan is bringing our home to you, we bring the people around us to you, the customer.

Q: When did you know a career in culinary arts was your calling?

AE: I was a financial analyst before I became a chef. It was a stale life in New York. I was working in the World Trade Center, and I quit literally two weeks before 9/11 happened. I worked on the 39th floor for Lehman Brothers.

Q: Would you say becoming a chef saved your life?

AE: Basically, because I could have been in the building somewhere. But you know when I truly knew it was my calling? My uncle, who passed away, would always bring me to his house, and he would cook while I watched. He gave me my own chef hat; I still have a picture of me in that chef hat from when I was a little kid. Back then, when you’re so young, and someone touches your life, it guides you to who you want to be, so that was my first love for it. Then came college, and I had one guy come to me and say, “Hey, you want to get the ladies? Learn to cook.” After that, I went home and asked my mom to teach me how to cook.

Q: So your mom taught you to cook?

AE: Worst teacher ever. I asked her how to make rice and beans, for example. She’s like “Well, you take water, you take rice, a little bit of salt, and put it on the stove.” That’s how I first learned to cook, followed by others influencing my creativity. Fortunately and, unfortunately, that’s how I cook now.

Q: Would say you create recipes on the fly?

AE: When Sara and I first met, she would see little papers and napkins around the house of food drawings. Now, I’ve become savvy. Instead of looking up recipes, I take pictures of food. We started out as a ‘Coastal Mexican’ restaurant, but I realized it wasn’t for me. We went from a ‘Coastal Mexican’ restaurant to whatever the hell I wanted to cook with a Mexican twist, which is great, because now I get to play with duck, lamb, pheasant and many other things. What makes me different from a lot of other people is I always cook on a whim. Today’s menu might be different next week; I always evolve.

cascabel1

Q: Do your improvised and creative recipes always work?

AE: I’ve made some bad dishes before. I remember making chai potatoes with a chocolate caramel sauce. I mean seriously, it was gross. You hit some; you miss some.

Q: Is there a cookbook in your future?

AE: That’s always been a goal of mine. It would be a children’s picture book with all drawings. No, but seriously, a cookbook is a long-term goal of mine. I just don’t want it to suck. As long as you keep cooking or presenting yourself from your past to now, you’re fine.

Q: Can you provide advice to anyone seeking your career?

AE: Your mentor should be a chef you respect. Do everything he tells you to. The problem with today is the internet creates instant chefs, but they don’t know the process to get there. Everything is readily available. If you want a recipe, it’s at your fingertips. It’s instant gratification. It takes time to be a chef. I don’t call anybody a chef. If you go to culinary school and graduate, to me, you’re not a chef. You’re just a cook who has a degree on how to flip a fish. To be a chef, you have to have certain years of experience, and you have to have people follow you.

Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?

AE: Eating after work is a guilty pleasure. When you leave a restaurant after midnight, the last thing you want to eat is something that you cooked—so it’s fast food. But I’m going to go with The New York Jets. THAT’S a guilty pleasure.

Q: Do you believe the popular saying “food can fix anything” is true or false?

AE: True. I’ve seen break-ups at our tables, but then they eat and they leave together. I think the most important parts of our lives happen around the table. Anyone you talk to in the culinary world will tell you the same thing—the reason you cook is to touch people.

Cascabel Restaurant
10717 Riverside Dr
Toluca Lake, CA 91602
818.927.4210
www.cascabelrestaurant.com