With closed rooms, this musician from Long Beach has started to make the taste buds dance instead • Hi-lo


Sitting at the dining table in the family home in North Long Beach, surrounded by the smell of empanadas fried in a nearby pan, Juan Antonio “Tony” Tafoya looks a little tired, his eyelids heavy. He was out until the early hours of the morning, playing a concert with his band, which performed traditional Mexican banda music in nightclubs and at parties around Los Angeles and Orange County.

Playing music was Tafoya’s main concert. But as of early 2020, with events large and small banned to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Tafoya was out of work.

“I went from six, seven days a week to none,” Tafoya said in Spanish. “It was very difficult.”

Running out of funds, the professional trumpeter began looking for other ways to support his family of five: himself, his wife Rossy and their three children. This is when Mariscos El Compa Ivan, their family business offering freshly prepared Mexican seafood, was born.

Cooking wasn’t entirely new ground for the 39-year-old, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 2000s.

Aguachile at Mariscos El Compa Ivan in Long Beach on Friday October 15, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Back home in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, before his move to the United States and his subsequent marriage to Rossy, the then bachelor offered a spicy concoction of boiled shrimp, chili de arbol, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes that he would cook himself. and his friends. When he immigrated to California in 2002, the recipe went with him and found fans among his new family, friends and neighbors.

So when the pandemic started and the music suddenly stopped, a friend asked: Why didn’t he make some of his famous shrimp to sell them? They would be his first clients, he told her.

“I had done it before, at home, but only for the family,” Tafoya said. “I never thought that one day I would sell it.”

But Tafoya and his wife, an expert in grocery scoring, didn’t hesitate.

“At that point, I didn’t have much money left, because I wasn’t working enough,” he said. So they took the last $ 100 he had saved and went to a local supermarket to buy as much shrimp as they could, along with a few other ingredients. Then they placed their first order of camarones estilo Ivan, his signature dish, now named after the couple’s youngest son, 3-year-old Ivan.

“We started doing this and people started to like it,” he said. “And then we made a different dish and another.” People kept asking for their favorite seafood dishes: empanadas, ceviche, aguachile. “We said we never made them, but we would try. “

Along with his sister-in-law, Elva, Tafoya and his wife began experimenting with different sauces and recipes, some taken from YouTube and modified to suit their own tastes in a process of trial and error, others from of family members.

An important contribution, the recipe for cheese and shrimp empanadas, came from her mother-in-law, who immigrated to the United States from the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Unlike Guanajuato, the mountainous and landlocked home state of Tafoya, Sinaloa stretches 386 miles of Pacific coastline, teeming with blue marlins, tuna, and mahi mahi. The port town of Mazatlán in Sinalo, a popular destination with Carnival cruise passengers departing from Long Beach, is particularly known for the variety and quality of its local seafood.

“The whole state of Sinaloa is a seafood state,” Tafoya said. His wife’s family are from the state capital, Culiacán, he added. “Of course they love seafood! “

And it’s not just Sinaloan recipes that have moved up the Pacific coast from the agricultural state known as “Mexico’s breadbasket” to its American counterpart, California.

Every year, Tafoya’s wife’s family returns home to Sinaloa to visit her father’s grave in honor of Dia de Los Muertos, the annual celebration dedicated to honoring the dead.

The chiltepin peppers they bring back from their trips have become a favorite among customers who enjoy their seafood very spicy – the size and shape of cranberries, they rank around 50,000 to 100,000 units on the scale. from Scoville. Yet they must be rationed – demand regularly outstrips the supply of fiery imports.

The octopus and scallops used in the seafood platters at Mariscos El Compa Ivan also come from Sinaloa, via a local food truck that imports and resells them.

The presentation of their sets on social media – colorful, perfectly lit and carefully arranged – is the domain of Tafoya’s sister-in-law, Elva García. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Garcia bought a small light box early on to make their designs shine, much to the dismay of his frugal sister, the company’s unofficial accountant.

“She’s the lady of the money,” Garcia said with a serious inflection. “I had to prove to him that it was worth it. “

His strategy worked.

Since setting up an Instagram page for their business in July 2020, the order volume has grown exponentially. “We started getting orders from random people, which was really exciting,” Garcia said. Customers place their orders through the company’s Instagram page or over the phone.

While in the first few weeks they prepared orders worth $ 300 to $ 500 each week, that number quadrupled when order volumes peaked a year later.

Since then, “things have slowed down a bit,” Garcia said. But that did not dampen their entrepreneurial spirit. “Our menu is growing and we are evolving,” she said. “We are learning so much.

Part of this development is an upcoming move to a shared kitchen with professional appliances.

Starting November 6, Mariscos El Compa Ivan will be renting a location at Feel Good Salsa, a recently opened communal kitchen in the historic Hellmann district, on weekends. Garcia and her sister now do most of the cooking and they are even considering hiring new staff as Tafoya returns to the stage.

“We are excited,” Garcia said.

A plate of the signature dish, les camarones estilo Ivan, in Long Beach on Friday, October 15, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

As he returns to playing music almost every day and his wife has taken over the cooking reins, Tafoya isn’t ready to give up his love of cooking entirely.

“Music runs in my blood,” said Tafoya, who grew up in a family of musicians and has been performing since the age of 11. But, “I like cooking too.” One day, he hopes to open a restaurant with his wife and family.

“A small restaurant, so that people can come and eat, feel comfortable, with a little beer, maybe a michelada, and shrimp. We’re having a good time, “he said.” It’s the dream I have. “

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