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Does Santa Monica Still Have Space for Small, Family-Owned Restaurants in 2019? El Texate’s Owner Is Not so Sure

4:32 PM PDT on September 4, 2019

El Texate

[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]l Texate on 4th and Pico in Santa Monica has been serving Oaxacan food since the Marcial family opened it in 1992. Its ambiance, moles, and community life have remained consistent since then. But in the last ten years, the city has transformed around them. The number of luxury condos has gone up while family institutions like El Texate have gone down. 

Recently, their position has become increasingly uncertain. 

“Someone at the development office told me, ‘Don’t take it personal. It’s business. We don’t make any money off of you. We make money off big business,’” Michael Marcial shares during service. Along with his wife Hildy and staff of seven, he manages, waits tables, tends bar, and meets other day-to-day necessities. Nonetheless, he has felt the changes. “In Santa Monica, it’s hard to have a business, especially if you are family-owned.”

One block west, plans are underway to convert the Pico bowling alley, which has served the community since 1958, into a three-story, 97,455 square foot condo complex. When the building is finalized, Marcial fears, “Probably the owner of this land is gonna kick us out and build something up. Either a hotel or condominiums, whatever. It’s gonna happen. I’m not being naive about it.”

A plate of mole at El Texate.

Until that happens, it’s worth pausing on El Texate’s story, to understand what a city loses when development continues unabated. 

'The only reason we opened the restaurant, to be completely honest with you, is because there’s a lot of people from Oaxaca, they come here to work and they don’t have a wife to cook for them, and they used to call my mom at home. My mom used to cook [for them] a lot.'

Michael grew up in Santa Monica, the third oldest of eight siblings, graduating Santa Monica High School in 1983. His father Filiberto worked as a cook in a hospital kitchen. But the restaurant’s genesis came from his mother Bernardina. “The only reason we opened the restaurant, to be completely honest with you, is because there’s a lot of people from Oaxaca, they come here to work and they don’t have a wife to cook for them, and they used to call my mom at home. My mom used to cook [for them] a lot.”

What began as two meals a day for friends became an in-home business. “It started with two people, then became 30, 40, then 60, 80…So she had a lot of food packed for people that go to work. Then early in the morning they’d come and pick up their little bags and they’d go. And then they’d pay mom…So she says we’re gonna open [a restaurant] for them.” Bernardina decided the family should open a restaurant for the Oaxacan community. Michael had experienced the process after working for a company that opened a restaurant in New York. The building where El Texate stands was an abandoned lot at the time. “This place was a mess. It was vacant for three years. [The landowner] couldn’t rent it. The windows were small and broken.”

The ambiance at El Texate.

Though initially resistant to the risk of opening a restaurant, the landowner bit the bullet, selling them the building for $18,000, with the first three months free since the Marcials had to clean, repair and build most of it out themselves. (I asked Marcial how much the same place, on an empty lot, would cost today: “Half a million. Minimum.”) 

At the time, Santa Monica offered a much friendlier permit process than it does now. Laughing, Michael said, “Twenty-seven years ago, they would give [the permits] to you for free. They didn’t check on anything.” Now, he describes the process as “pulling teeth,” with simple requests, like karaoke permits, of which there are apparently three kinds, requiring an extensive, expensive process. 

When El Texate opened, Bernardina served as head chef, designing the menu with her own recipes which the restaurant serves to this day. Michael worked with her in the kitchen, Filiberto hosted and managed, and Michael’s brother Manny worked the floor. They established a quiet, casual restaurant, where Oaxacans could stop for their lunch break or for dinner on their way home. But Santa Monica’s community responded in a surprising, positive way.

We never thought that Santa Monica was the big place to open. We started finding out there’s a lot of people in Santa Monica, they went to Oaxaca, they already knew Oaxaca. They knew places in Oaxaca I didn’t even know…A lot of surfers. Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel. They’d tell me, I go there, I surf there, I take my people, I go to the competitions, I ate this, I ate that. I’m like, Oh my God, really? They’d come with their friends from there. Then all of a sudden we started getting all those people.”

Despite the occasional rush, it has largely remained a quiet, casual place, with an inviting no-reservation policy (“If you come in and see a table, you’re welcome to sit down.”) Filiberto served as manager until he passed away in 2000. Michael took over from Manny five years later, maintaining the restaurant in his family’s vision. He held his older daughter’s baptism at the restaurant, nine months before his father passed. Every year, on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, they close the restaurant and have a party for extended family. Over the years, it has expanded beyond their relatives. 

Richard Apodac has been a regular for the last twenty years. Jeff de Roulhac, a longtime Santa Monica parking enforcement officer, for the last nine. Both are L.A. natives in their sixties who formed a friendship watching football at the bar. Michael jokingly refers to them by the names of characters from Cheers. Neither have families of their own, but they have been welcomed into the Marcials. 

Ted Winterer, Santa Monica’s mayor, is also currently a broker at Maser Condo Sales, and has advertised properties in the area.

Richard recalls seeing Michael’s daughters, current and former Santa Monica High School students, regularly study after school at the restaurant. “They used to sit in the corner and do their homework in that booth over there. Now they’re nineteen, sixteen.”

Jeff recalls, “I tried to teach them baseball but they were into violin and flute. [laughs] I thought it might damage their finger or something playing hardball, so I had to quit teaching them.” Due to health issues, both have to avoid carb-heavy food, but that doesn’t keep them from the restaurant. As we spoke, Jeff ordered a chicken salad, and Hilda jokingly told the waitress to add extra jalapeños, just loud enough so Jeff could laugh. 

Michael and Hilda regularly invite them to the annual holiday parties, though Jeff, admittedly shy, never goes for long. When Bernardina passed away in 2010, Richard attended the funeral. He didn’t seem to mind that the service was entirely in Spanish, a language he does not speak. “I was there for the family. It could have been in Polish.”

Architects for the bowling alley development are currently working with the Architectural Review Board on design alterations. Once they satisfy the Board, the project will move forward. The next hearing is scheduled for September 6th. The project’s developer, GRT Portfolio Properties Santa Monica, has not responded for comment. 

I don’t dream of becoming a rich millionaire. I just want to be comfortable, make sure that my girls go to school.

Two additional luxury condo developments are currently pending before the planning commission. If approved, they would stand just down the street from the bowling alley development, at Pico and Ocean Avenue. 

Ted Winterer, Santa Monica’s mayor, is also currently a broker at Maser Condo Sales, and has advertised properties in the area. But El Texate remains open for now. The landowner, who Michael calls “a kind man,” keeps their rent at a suitable level for them in a city where restaurant leases can reach over $120,000 per month. Still, they’re playing something of a waiting game. The owner is in his nineties, and his children, who have no personal relationship with the Marcials, work in real estate development. 

Michael Marcial, right.

Until they’re formally given their final notice, Michael, Hilda, and the family will continue to welcome people to their restaurant, running it with honesty and warmth, the way they always have. 

“It’s not about the money. It’s about history, how we build it, how many people we lost working hard. I don’t dream of becoming a rich millionaire. I just want to be comfortable, make sure that my girls go to school, [that I can] pay for their schooling, that’s it. I don’t need a Mercedes to ride in front of my building. I don’t want to own a mansion. Maybe it’s a little naive but that’s what I want to do.”

The City of Santa Monica used to make space for dreams like this, but according to the massive amount of developments happening in this part of town and the uncertain future of El Texate, not anymore. 

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