This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we speak with Christina Torres of Zandunga Mexican Bistro.
Edgar and Christina Torres, Zandunga. [Photo: Zandunga]
After watching his family build the successful restaurant Mi Madre’s for almost 21 years, Chef Edgar Torres and his wife Christina opened their very own restaurant, Zandunga Mexican Bistro, a year ago today. Here, Christina Torres talks about the struggles the restaurant still faces, being a part of the East Side community, and why she hates when people confuse Tex-Mex with Zandunga's food.
What is the story behind the conception of the restaurant?
My husband was working at Mi Madre’s after we had moved back from San Diego to Austin, and about after a year of changing things and the revising menu over a little bit at Mi Madre’s, we decided to open Zandunga to create more of a challenge for ourselves.
What was the vision you guys had for it? Are there certain things you knew you wanted to have on the menu?
I think we envisioned enlightening Austin with something besides Tex-Mex. We wanted to show people new ingredients. Exotic favors. We also wanted to stay on the East Side because what gave us the opportunity to open a restaurant in the first place was the support that Mi Madre’s has, which has been there now for 20 years or so.
Tell me a little bit about more about why you chose the East Side. It seems like the restaurant scene over there is exploding.
I think obviously Austin is becoming more of a foodie city on the East Side. We chose to stay in East Austin because people already know us from Mi Madre’s and because they know the quality is good and they know our consistency. We’re family owned. We’re not a chain. For lack of a better phrase, we’re home grown. And, honestly, we also want to give back to the East Side. It’s nice to be able to stay on the same side of town where everyone knows us and trusts us.
Was there a lot of influence from Mi Madre’s?
We wanted to keep the welcoming feel. The feeling when you walk into Mi Madre’s is almost like you are at one of your aunt’s houses. We kind of wanted to recreate that same environment. Nothing uptight, and nothing too snooty. But at the same time, we wanted to present our food really well. That’s why a lot of our plates are presented so beautifully. We also wanted to show off that the Mi Madre’s family isn’t just Tex-Mex and tacos. We’re more than that.
What is it like to work with family?
I think it’s bittersweet. You know that somebody is always going to catch you, somebody is always there to give you good advice, and someone is always there that you can trust. You also know your customers are going to get great service even if you aren't there because either my husband is there or my sister-in-law is there or my mother-in-law. I mean, it is nice, but sometimes it’s definitely stressful. We all have the Hispanic pride and that attitude. But it is good because you can really trust them, and we’re all in it for passion, not for "get rich quick" and not "let’s see how many people we can feed in a certain amount of time." We’re all in this because we honestly care about what we do.
You and your husband are both classically trained chefs. What do you feel has mattered more to your career: what you learned in school or what you learned from the family restaurant?
I think Mi Madre’s gave Chef Edgar his start and his love for cooking. But he built upon that. A lot of the dishes we have at Zandunga have this European feel, but with Mexican ingredients. That’s the best way I can describe it. We really wanted to mold the two styles together, which is why it is called a bistro. We’re trying to have this great quality food, while focusing on Mexican ingredients. But honestly, at the end of the day, both training and experience equally matter.
When did you realize that you guys were on to something?
We had a really trying time in the beginning because we didn’t have any investors, and it was kind of do or die, and we had to keep on keepin’ on. We weren’t getting paychecks, but everything happened slowly but surely with the new furniture, new paintings, and everything little by little. It’s definitely an ongoing struggle, and I wouldn’t say that we are completely over that hump. I think this whole experience has humbled us quite a bit. We’re still working on it.
In Pat Sharpe’s review, she said something like ‘people should not walk, but instead, run to the restaurant;’ did you have a lot of people come in after that Texas Monthly spotlight?
I think that, that was even more powerful than when we were on the Cooking Channel because the Cooking Channel brought out-of-town customers, but people in Texas actually trust Pat Sharpe. They know her, and for her to say that about our restaurant was beyond nice, and she actually kept coming after that, so it wasn’t like she just wrote this article and never came back. She still comes back and eats here. She had a big impact on our business, for sure.
Now that you guys are ringing in the year anniversary, do you have any plans for anything new? Any new additions or changes to the menu?
We just introduced a new lunch menu on Friday, so I haven’t even really had time to market it that well because I’m busy planning the anniversary party. We’re going to be changing the dinner menu with a few new items here and there. Though, I don’t think that’s going to happen for at least another month or two.
What is the party going to be like?
We have a live band playing that plays old Cuban music, and we have a six-course tasting menu for $60, and $75, if it is paired with wine. It’s going to be a lot of good friends and family, and we still have like 10 reservations left available. It’s going to be the chef doing what he wants. This is larger than his normal price boundary, so he’s allowed to go over the top. It’s going to be really interesting because I know he is working on a green mole with roasted clams, and I’m really excited to try that.
There are so many renditions of Mexican food all over the state of Texas, but what do you think about the Mexican food in Austin?
I think it’s the hardest market we could have gone into, to be quite honest. It’s tough. There are so many great restaurants out there, and they all have their different pros and cons. Also, I think the market is still growing. Our chef loves enlightening people with new ingredients and showing them that, yes, Tex-Mex is awesome; we grew up on it. He grew up on it. Just as an example, he has chile relleno, but the Tex-Mex version is completely different. I think he wants to show people that Austin Mexican food isn’t just rice and beans. It’s more.
Who do you think is doing Mexican food well in Austin?
As far as drinks go, I think La Condesa does them amazingly well. It is nice that they have the money to do all they do downtown, but I think their drinks are absolutely amazing. Man, this is a tough question. [laughs]. Since we own two Mexican food restaurants, it’s honestly hard to leave them. We’re always so full of Mexican food. I think Fonda San Miguel does good food too, but I think they could use a revamp. We have a few similar dishes, but I think they need a revamp simply because they have been in business for so long. But don’t get me wrong, it’s solid food; it just needs to maybe be a little more modern.
You talked earlier about being on the East Side. Do you feel like you are a part of a food community over there?
Yeah, of course. We are all really good friends with the owner of Uncorked [Tasting Room and
Wine Bar]. He comes over here a lot and vice versa. Amy [Ramirez] from Blue Dahlia [Bistro],
she is awesome about letting us borrow things, and we do the same for her. If she has a wait,
she’ll say ‘you know Zandunga is right down the street.’ The Purple Bean [Cafe], it’s a little
coffee shop right down the street, they have a little herb garden, and we swap herbs. There are
a lot of great restaurants out here, and we all support each other.
Would you ever want to open another restaurant?
I would love for somebody to talk us into opening another Zandunga. I feel like restaurants run through our veins. It’s just something we do and something we are. We actually own the property next to Mi Madre’s, and I think in the next two years we will probably do another restaurant.
There is a lot going on in terms of trends in the Austin restaurant scene. What are you most excited about?
I would say all of the publicity Austin chefs are getting. I feel like Houston has always been ‘the best restaurant city,’ but that is finally becoming Austin. You can get good food at a trailer or a fine dining place. I think that is really exciting. Chefs all over the city are raising the bar.
Old Mexican food and Tex-Mex are often grouped together. Does that bother you? It seems like a lot of people forget they are vastly different styles.
It does. That’s been a constant struggle. People walk in and assume we have things they want like tacos and enchiladas, and instead we have things like red snapper with Veracruz sauce. So, it’s a constant battle. People are so used to not paying that much for Mexican food, but they want it prepared so elegantly and in this beautiful atmosphere. There is so much more to Mexico than just rice and beans. I think that is what we have a passion for showing people. So, yes; my answer is yes!
Now that you guys have hit the year mark, what are you most proud of?
Just being open and getting over that first hump and having people appreciate our restaurant. It melts our hearts when people say things like ‘Oh, this is just like the sauce my grandma used to make.’ It’s overwhelming how many people we’ve met that have become huge fans of Zandunga. We’re proud to be here and say that we’ve made it to a year.