Family, fate and food
By Rick Henry
When launching a new restaurant there are many – perhaps too many – factors to consider. Demographics, building availability, and market saturation are among the criteria owners take into account in deciding whether to open in a particular city or location.
However, for Carolina McCandless and David Perez, family and fate were the ultimate deciding factors that led them to open their restaurant, Cielo Rojo (Red Sky), at 7056 Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park.
It was family that drew the couple to Takoma Park, or in McCandless’ case, back to Takoma Park. She grew up in the area, and her parents have owned and operated the clothing store Amano on Carroll Avenue for more than 20 years.
But she had been living in San Francisco for the past 12 years, and in 2012 she met Perez at an organic vegan Mexican restaurant. They became a couple and then worked together at a catering company. After giving birth to daughter in 2017, the couple decided they could no longer afford to live in San Francisco and elected to move back to the area and open their own restaurant. The question was “where?”
That’s when fate took over. “We had just decided to move back east, and two days later, my father told me that the Subway sandwich shop (down the street from his store) was up for lease,” said McCandless. “He said, ‘I know this is a crazy idea, but the location couldn’t be more perfect for your idea of a Mexican restaurant.’”
Intrigued by the idea, but not willing to commit to that location immediately, the couple checked some other open spots in the area, but ultimately decided that that location and size was perfect for a first restaurant.
“I knew the Takoma Park community very well from growing up working at Amano, and I felt it would be a great fit for our concept,” McCandless said. From that moment of decision last June, it was a quick sprint to the restaurant’s grand opening in late January. Here again, family comes into play. “My father helped build the restaurant and helped with my concept,” McCandless said. “For instance, I bought tiles from Mexico and designed the look of the tables in the restaurant, and he actually built the tile tabletops.”
Equally important to McCandless was her mother caring for the couple’s daughter during the long hours of prep for the opening. And as long-term Takoma Park business owners, the parents provided invaluable advice. “The guidance they gave was to keep prices reasonable so that it could be tailored to the diversity of people living in Takoma Park,” McCandless said.
That advice seems to have worked well so far, as the restaurant has been busy since its opening, drawing enthusiastic patrons, such as Carissa Marks and Jessica Carter. The pair, who work nearby, are frequent lunchtime customers and big fans. When asked how many times they have eaten at Cielo Rojo, Marks laughed and simply said, “Lots.” “We are both vegan, and the food is so flavorful. You don’t feel that you are missing out on anything at all,” said Carter, citing her favorite dishes, gorditas (organic potato and corn masa patties) and drunken mushroom tacos.
While it serves an array of vegan entrees that satisfy Marks and Carter, Cielo Rojo offers a full menu of meat, pork, chicken and fish entrees as well. Options include small plates of tacos or quesilladas to larger more ambitious full entrees of rockfish, enchiladas and posole (hominy stew).
The unifying thread is a commitment to sourcing as much local and organic food as possible, (100% organic non-GMO corn tortillas and hormone-free and humanely raised meats, for example) and the well-honed skills of chef Perez, a native of Mexico City, who has been cooking in the United States since he immigrated at age 17.
McCandless said that the restaurant has enjoyed a great response so far, even if it has tested the staff and the restaurant’s capacity. “We did not anticipate being so busy when we first opened, and it’s taken a lot of work to keep up with demand,” she said. “We are learning a lot as we go.”
For menu and hours of operation, visit www.cielo-rojo.com.
This article appeared in the March 2019 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.