From the Heart of La Misión, Three Generations of Antojitos Salvadoreños
Food transcends language, and for immigrants in a country where everything is new, food can help bridge that divide.
16 years ago, Maria del Carmen Flores founded Estrellitaâs Snacks in the heart of the Mission as a food vending operation, selling a variety of Salvadoran antojitos like plÃ¡tanos fritos and yucca and plantain chips in local bars and businesses.
Today, Mariaâs daughter Estrella Gonzalez leads the business with her children, Estrella Natale Oceguera and Angel Acevedo. After two years of waiting to open their own commercial space, Estrellitaâs Snacks finally opened in La Cocinaâs Municipal Marketplace alongside other small businesses led by women chefs and entrepreneurs. Though Maria del Carmen no longer works onsite at the restaurant, Estrella, Natale and Angel carry on her legacy.
In a bilingual conversation as part of KQED’s Mi Herencia event series, KQED en EspaÃ±ol reporter Carlos Cabrera-Lomeli spoke with the two generations of Estrellitaâs Snacks about perfecting plÃ¡tano frying techniques, starting your own business as an immigrant entrepreneur, and lessons they learned from their family matriarch.
Weâve translated portions of this interview in Spanish and edited for clarity. Watch the original conversation on Facebook.
Carlos: Tell us about the moment Maria del Carmen decided to start Estrellitaâs Snacks.
Estrella: I was carrying my daughter, Natale, when I got an intense craving for platanitos. So we went to the store and purchased about ten platanitos and she started frying them. But she ended up producing so many! As you know, el antojo is just a little cravingâthatâs all I wanted. She asked me what she should do with all the leftovers. Then, she bought a few Ziploc bags and went out to sell the rest. âTe animas a salir conmigo a caminar a La MisiÃ³n to the bars,â she told me. âWeâre going to sell them.â
Out we went, entering one bar after another, and continued through the night until we sold all of them. We ended up making a lot more than we invested in for a few plantains. At that point, she said she knew exactly what she was going to do.
Instead of buying 10 plantains, she decided to buy a case of plantains. Every afternoon weâd go out, each time with great results. âDe aquÃ en adelante, este negocio se va a crecer,â she said. And with the help of us, her family, weâre continuing to do just that. Seguir adelante.
How did your mother go from street vending in the Mission to securing a spot in La Cocinaâs first municipal marketplace?
When she began to put effort into making her business, she started informing herself, which was complicated because she didnât (well, doesnât) speak English. So she started asking a variety of people for help on how to open her own business. Sheâd say that while she didnât speak English, sheâd find help on how to get this or that. She asked so many people. Some people told her to go to City Hall for her permiso or business license. We worked out of and rented space in two restaurants before getting to La Cocina.
One day, someone told her about a spot that supported small businesses in the Mission, right there on Mission and Folsom. Out of pure curiosity, she started searching for it, and when she found it, she asked a young kid where the address to La Cocina was. And he was like, âPues, allÃ enfrente,â and she said, âÂ¿CÃ³mo que enfrente?â At that point, she realized that she lived directly in front of La Cocina. The same place that could help her start producing her business was right across the street from her home. All she had to do was cross the street, and there she was. Every day starting at 5 a.m., there she was at La Cocina. Thank god people there speak both English and Spanish and could help.
Estrellitaâs Snacks managed to do something very unique in a very hard time. How does it feel to finally have your own placeâespecially during a pandemic when so many businesses have lost everything?
This project would have launched in early 2020. But then the pandemic hit, and so [La Cocina] told us to pause and wait to see what happens. Everything closed. We asked ourselves what we should do. [At that point] we continued at farmers’ markets, which was something essential and would stay open to the public. But even sales at the farmers’ market were low. La Cocina provided us with support and resources and told us not to worry about rent.
This year La Cocina told us we could begin planning our opening, but to start online first. That was fine because what mattered to us was to actually get started so that, little by little, we could finally open in accordance with the city. We opened on Wednesday [June 16, 2021], and weâre seeing more people, more movement and sales are starting to increase a little bit.
One time, I had the opportunity to meet your mother at a farmers market. I noticed that she had two stars in her front teeth. Why is Estrellaâthe name and the shapeâso important to the family and the business?
When she was younger, she always dreamed of being an artistâto be a star, to shine. So when she had me, she named me Estrella, [as I also named my daughter]. When she couldnât be a star herself, she told herself that at least sheâd have a daughter named Estrella. And the business all started with an antojo, a craving that was [mine] but also her granddaughterâs [as I was pregnant with Natale]. Thatâs why she named the business Estrellitaâs Snacks.
As for the stars on her smile, she asked if they could put stars when she had work done on her teeth. They put a custom order out to Honduras to represent her business.
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Before arriving in San Francisco, Maria del Carmen got to know three distinct countries with their own culinary traditions: SalvadoreÃ±a, Guatemalteca and Mexicana. From the menu of Estrellitaâs Snacks, can we get to know a bit about the three countries that the family lived in and traveled through?
My mother is from Berlin, from the Departamento de UsulutÃ¡n. Her dream was to immigrate to the U.S., but unfortunately, she faced an obstacle that prevented her from doing so early on. She went first to Guatemala and then, after that, arrived in Mexico. There, she found the love of her life and stayed there for many years. She started another business in Mexico but faced many obstacles for being a Salvadoran immigrant. But just like [she did in the U.S.], she never let obstacles hold her back. She stayed for many years, but an opportunity arose when another woman asked her to travel alongside her to the United States.
We lived [in Mexico] for many years, and I make Mexican food. We know the culture well. We were in Oaxaca, and we can make tamales de mole con pollo. If people ask us for antojitos Mexicanos, weâll make them. But we focus mostly on comida SalvadoreÃ±a.
For anyone that’s thinking about starting a business, especially a food business, what advice would you give them?
Fight. Itâs not an easy road, but itâs not impossible. Focus on getting informed and finding the right people who can connect you to support. Find out where to get your licenses and find a kitchen you can cook in. Many organizations, not just La Cocina, are here to help you. Sigue adelante with that dream, that goal and let no one steal your dreams. It doesnât matter what anyone says. Many people told my mom that she couldnât do it because she didnât speak English. But my mom would always reply, âYo no hablo inglÃ©s, pero mi comida habla por mÃ.â
You represent four generations of business owners going back to El Salvador: your grandmother, your mom, you and now your children. Thatâs four generations directly involved in this spirit of offering food to the community. How do you feel being part of this legacy?
I feel happy. Joyful. My children help me and theyâre learning [to cook] how my mother taught me. How to keep it alive. Like my mom says: âPrefiero que trabajen conmigo y no trabajen con la [otra] gente.â With me, youâll have the opportunity to have a flexible schedule and you can continue studying and then in the afternoons help me. Once theyâre done with school for the day, they ask me how they can help me in the kitchen and I tell them, âSi hay mÃ¡s manos, salimos mÃ¡s rÃ¡pido tambiÃ©n.â [If we work together], then we can all go and rest. I hope that one day they can continue the legacy if thatâs what they want to do as well.
Angel: I don’t ever want to let go of it. We grew into it, and I totally learned to love it. I was a little hard at it at first, I admit. In the end, I fell in love with everything: the cooking, the people, the atmosphere. I hope to pass it on to my kids too.
For Natale and Angel, what are some of your earliest memories of helping your grandmother in the kitchen at the beginning of Estrellitaâs Snacks?
Angel: Here’s a little secret: I’ve only recently learned how to throw down on the pupusas because I didn’t know how to make them for so long. I never asked my grandmother because she always had it on lock; she was just like a machine. But now I’m in there and I want to learn everything. So I’ve only just recently learned how to make pupusas.
My grandmother always made it an initiative of hers that we learned how to hustle and never depend on anybody. And so that is why we now take care of the family business because we see the same thing can get passed on and create generational wealth down the timeline.
Natale: Probably my earliest memory was packaging the tostadas. I have a picture of me packing tostadas when I was like seven years old, and I still remember that at my grandma’s house. She was always a really hard worker. She always put my family and jobs together as her priority. And she was really a great role model for me and my mom, too, and all of us.
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Angel, you mentioned that you just recently started learning how to make your mother and grandmotherâs pupusas. How did you learn or start practicing the recipes? And what do you do to try to make them special?
Paying close attention is how I learned. I thought that it was easy-peasy stuff. Then I tried and my pupusa was falling apart. So I started taking notes and videos and pictures with my iPhone. Later when I would get home, I would study them and the next day I’d try again until I got it.
When I was little, I remember my grandmother would make me a pupusa and it would have this really crisp, nice taste because it had the right amount of filling inside. What I try to do when I’m making a pupusa is that I try to flatten it really nicely and leave it real, real, full with the stuff that everybody wants, like chicken or cheese or spinach and cheese. And then I wrap them around and find it out and I try to make it like she did as best that I could.
I can make pupusas, tamales. Now I need to learn how to make curtido. I’m usually the one that’s peeling the plantains and frying them with my stepdad.
La Cocinaâs Municipal Marketplace is the first marketplace in the country that’s entirely led by women. Natale, how does it feel to be in a space that’s led by women?
Natale: I think it’s incredible. I see everyone in the business, and I just think it’s very woman-powered. In the kitchen, you rarely see women, you see more men. But seeing women owning the business and working the business is really amazing to me and powerful.
Estrella, in your recipe video, you had some advice for preparing plÃ¡tanos fritos. In your opinion, what is the secret to making the most delicious plÃ¡tanos fritos at home?
Estrella: When you go to the market, make sure you pick the plantain that isnât too ripe, nor too green. It should be the color brown. When you touch them, make sure theyâre not too mushy, just a little firm and smooth. Thatâs when you know that plantain is ready to fry. The texture and the flavor, theyâll be sweet by this point.
If you get them when theyâre still yellow and fry them, theyâll be bland and flavorless. They wonât be sweet, theyâre not quite right. I always recommend you look for those qualities in the plantain you select.
Recipe for PlÃ¡tanos Fritos, Estilo Estrellitaâs Snacks
Pick out the perfect platanito. Youâll want to pick one thatâs dark brown in color and softâbut not too mushy. Peel and Chop Peel the skin of your plantain then chop it into small chunks. Fry the plantains in oil. The oil you use for deep frying should be 350 degrees. If youâre frying at home, you can fry them in a small pan at medium heat. You only need about two cups of oil. Make sure you turn them to fry them evenly on both sides. Strain your plantains Strain your newly fried plantains to remove excess oil, then place them on a plate to drain for two or three minutes.
Then, top it all off with some refried red beans (also known as Honduran beans), a bit of cheese and some cream Â¡Provecho!
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