Side StrEATS: With venues shuttered, this Long Beach musician took to making taste buds dance instead

Lea esta historia en español

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

Playing music used to be Tafoya’s main gig. But starting in early 2020, with events large and small prohibited to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Tafoya was out of a job.

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

Short on funds, the professional trumpet player began looking for other ways to support his family of five—himself, his wife, Rossy, and their three children. That’s when Mariscos El Compa Ivan, their family business delivering freshly made Mexican seafood, was born.

The kitchen wasn’t entirely new terrain for the 39-year-old, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 2000s.

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

Just after moving to the U.S. from Guanajuato, Mexico, the then-bachelor came up with a spicy concoction of boiled shrimp, chile de arbol, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes that he would cook for himself and his friends. After his wedding to Rossy, the recipe quickly 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? They’d be his first clients, he told him.

“I had made 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 scorer of grocery deals, didn’t hesitate.

“By 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 many shrimp as they could, along with a few other ingredients. Then, they made 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 that 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’ve never made them, but we’d try.”

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

One significant contribution, the recipe for cheese and shrimp empanadas, came from his mother-in-law, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Unlike Tafoya’s landlocked, mountainous home state of Guanajuato, Sinaloa stretches along 386 miles of Pacific coastline, teeming with blue marlins, tuna and mahi mahi. The Sinaloan port city of Mazatlán—a popular destination with Carnival cruise passengers departing from Long Beach—is especially 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 hails from the state capital, Culiacán, he added. “Of course they like seafood!”

And it’s not just Sinaloan recipes that made their way up the Pacific coast from the agricultural state known as “Mexico’s breadbasket” to its U.S. counterpart, California.

Every year, Tafoya’s wife’s family travels 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 chiles de chiltepin they bring back from their trips have become a favorite among customers who like their seafood extra spicy—the size and shape of cranberries, they rank at about 50,000 to 100,000 units on the Scoville scale. Still, they have to be rationed—demand regularly outpaces supply of the fiery imports.

The octopus and scallops used in Mariscos El Compa Ivan’s seafood trays, too, come from Sinaloa, by way of a local food truck that imports and resells them.

The presentation of their trays on social media—colorful, perfectly lit and neatly arranged—is the domain of Tafoya’s sister in law, Elva García. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Garcia early on purchased a small light box to help their creations shine—much to the dismay of her frugal sister, the business’s unofficial accountant.

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

Her strategy worked.

Since she started an Instagram page for their business in July 2020, the volume of orders has grown exponentially. “We started getting orders from random people, which was really exciting,” Garcia said. Customers place their orders via the business’s Instagram page or by phone.

Where during the first few weeks, they would be preparing $300-$500 worth of orders each week, that number quadrupled when order volumes hit their peak a year later.

Since, then, “things have slowed down a little bit,” Garcia said. But that hasn’t curbed their entrepreneurial spirit. “Our menu is expanding and we’re evolving,” she said. “We’re learning so much.”

Part of that evolution is an upcoming move into a shared kitchen with professional appliances.

Starting on Nov. 6, Mariscos El Compa Ivan will be renting a slot at Feel Good Salsa, a newly opened shared kitchen in the Hellmann Historic District, on the weekends. Garcia and her sister now do most of the cooking and they’re even thinking about hiring new staff as Tafoya returns to the stage.

“We’re excited,” Garcia said.

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

While he’s back to playing music nearly every day and his wife has taken over the reins in the kitchen, Tafoya isn’t ready to give up his love for cooking altogether.

“Music runs in my blood,” Tafoya, who grew up in a family of musicians and has been playing since he was 11 years old, said. But, “I love the kitchen too.” One day, he hopes to open a restaurant together with his wife and her family.

“A little restaurant, so people can come and eat, feel comfortable, with a little beer, maybe a michelada, and some shrimp. Having a good time,” he said. “That’s the dream I have.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct time the recipe for camarones estilo Ivan’s was first created.

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Alena Maschke writes about all things business and beyond for the Long Beach Business Journal/Long Beach Post. Born and raised in Germany, she first fell in love with California during an exchange year at UCLA. After receiving her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2017, she returned to the Golden State with an appetite for great stories, pupusas and the occasional Michelada.