Jicama andjalapeños meet sambal and soy sauce in a feast that’s as American as apple pie
Meg J. Mateo
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“Some cilantro?” Isabel Cruz calls out to one of her guests. Cruz can’t find the herb she needs for showering over her sizzling, skillet-roasted chicken, just out of the oven. She’s unfazed. “Check the field,” she says. “But it’s okay if we don’t have any.” The self-taught, self-reliant chef of Puerto Rican descent has already harvested basketfuls of other produce—shiny heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, chiles—today. Here at Stargazer Farm, a 60-acre property she co-owns in Sandy, Oregon, not far from Mt. Hood, the bounty usually gets trucked to local restaurants, including her own, Isabel Pearl in Portland. But tonight it’s going straight into an Independence Day dinner for family and friends.
Although Cruz regularly visits the farm, her home base is the San Diego area. She currently has two other restaurants there, Coffee Cup Cafe and Isabel’s Cantina. Cruz started her foray into the restaurant business with Mission Cafe when she was 29, using money borrowed from one of her brothers. A single mom with two kids, she threw herself into the business and discovered what she loved best: Latin-Asian fusion. “Growing up in Los Angeles, I had a lot of Asian-American friends, kids who were first-generation like me,” Cruz explains. “I loved going to their homes and eating their food. It felt very natural for me to combine flavors from my home and theirs.”
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A Festive Gathering
She started cooking early with minimum fuss, learning from her mother and grandma and making meals for the whole family by the time she was 14. Today, her laid-back approach permeates everything she does, from a cookbook, The Latin Table, to this intimate feast. Instead of micromanaging every detail tonight, for instance, she’s invited her guests to help pull off the party: Brother Erik Guzman cuts up the chickens, and Maria Hunt, friend and journalist, works on the mezcal cocktails. Pretty soon they’re all grabbing plates, votive candles, glasses, chairs, and platters of food and walking down to the outdoor table, where Cruz’s boyfriend, Chris Stephens, has just finished hanging lights in the surrounding trees.
Everyone settles in, then all raise their glasses for a toast. “Isabel is one of the coolest people I know,” says Carla Renee Gravley, Cruz’s longtime friend. “There could be a hurricane around her, and she’d say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a cake to bake!’ ”
The atmosphere may be low-key—in keeping with the relaxed feel of the Latin gatherings she grew up with, she says—but the food is bright, bold, and exciting. The menu spans from Mexico to Indonesia: shrimp cocktail with pineapple, jicama, mint, and ginger sambal; plantain fries served with a “Chino Latino” ketchup spiced with sambal oelek and smoky chipotle chiles; and the main event, roast chicken with Sichuan peppercorns and rich, crisp curls of Mexican chicharrónes.
For Cruz, it makes total sense as a Fourth of July gathering. “When I was young, American food meant TV dinners and canned goods,” she says. “Over time, my view evolved into a mix of flavors from my family, the people I learned from, and that’s who I celebrate when I cook. All these cultures contributing to a larger whole—to me, that’s America.”
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Hibiscus Mezcal Cocktail
A refreshing cocktail with a tangy-meets-smoky flavor.