Isabel Cruz blends Latin and Asian flavors in healthful recipes that surprise and satisfy. Raised in a Latino family where everyone cooked, and growing up in a neighborhood populated by Asian families, the self-taught chef observed at a young age how “a great meal started great conversation.” She set out to share the flavors of her heritage with dining guests and within a few years her creative dishes were sparking any number of great conversations.
Drawing upon traditional recipes from Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico, she added accents from Japanese, Korean and Thai cooking. At their core these cuisines, based on grains and vegetables with small amounts of protein, are quite healthful, and already full of flavor without having to add lots of cheese, cream or butter. Cruz’s recipes focus on these simple flavors, blend them in creative ways, and produce meals that not only taste great but are good for you. “It’s lifestyle eating,” she says.
Now she and her husband own five restaurants and a farm. Two of the popular restaurants, as well as the farm that supplies them with the freshest produce, are in Oregon. Her other three restaurants are in San Diego: Coffee Cup Café in La Jolla, Isabel’s Cantina in Pacific Beach and Barrio Star in the Banker’s Hill neighborhood.
At each of her restaurants she emphasizes “cooking from scratch” and using only the finest ingredients. Noting her personal dislike of dieting, she says, “It’s more about balance on your plate. I love simple recipes, with only a few, fresh ingredients bursting with fresh flavors.” She shares many of these simple yet flavorful recipes in her cookbook, Isabel’s Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen, which was was honored by the New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s top 25 notable cookbooks. Food and Wine magazine also named Isabel’s Cantina to their annual list of the top 25 cookbooks.
Perhaps the key to Cruz’s continued success is revealed in a message on her website: “Food is my passion.”