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A Long Beach Latina Honors Her Father’s Mariscos Legacy with a Legendary Cóctel de Camarón

11:35 AM PDT on July 21, 2021

ook, here it comes!” said Elsa Barragan ofMariscos el Garageas her newly wrapped food truck made its way around the corner of 17th and Sherman in Long Beach. 

In big letters, it read “Mariscos El Garage, Estilo Sinaloa & Michoacán!.” The truck had a picture of her father and the silhouette of his garage imprinted on the side. You see, Barragan is no newbie to seafood. She is continuing her father’s mariscos (seafood) legacy with the opening of her first food truck.

But, before her grand opening on Sunday, she closed the door to a significant place. A place that up until early this week was a hub for some of Long Beaches’ best cócteles de camarón.

The story of Mariscos El Garage cannot be told without mentioning the place and the person who unknowingly started a business that would grow beyond his years, her father. Better known to the community of Long Beach as Don Diego, he first opened the door to his one-car garage in 1996. The hidden mariscos treasure is snuggled between a house and a corner liquor store. The garage’s open door is equivalent to an “open” neon sign at a restaurant, welcoming you in to try its delicious food.  

“I was only 12 when my dad began to sell, and he only sold cóctel de camarón, it was very simple, but the way he made it was delicious,” Barragan said. “It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been 25 years since he opened.”

Taco gobernador.
Taco Gobernador. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
Ceviche de camarón.
Ceviche de camarón. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

The garage, which LA TACO visited before it closed last week, looks exactly how her father left it before his passing in 2016. The walls are filled with Jenni Rivera and Ninel Conde posters, old calendars from carnicería, and a collection of Club América memorabilia. The experience was like stepping inside your favorite tio’s garage; you know, the one who always has cold beers and bomb food on hand. The essence of Don Diego was very much present and felt.  

“My dad hardly ever stepped out of the garage because he wanted to make sure he opened for his clientes (clients), he would say ‘¡No, mis clientes vienen primero!’ ‘No, my clients come first!’ It was his sanctuary,” she said. 

She described her father opening his garage as early as 9 AM and closing until 8 PM because he loved talking to everyone who stopped by. What started as something to pass the time quickly turned into a full-time job for Don Diego. Barragan, who was just a teen at the time, was always by her father’s side, taking note of how he prepared the shrimp and ingredients. A sacred process to her father, so sacred he would say no when she would ask if she could help. “He only trusted himself and my mom when it came to helping him prepare everything,” she said. “Especially the shrimp, no one else was allowed to touch the shrimp.”

The now 37-year-old chef said her father was very tough on her compared to her other three siblings. Being the middle child, he made her work hard from a young age. At 12, he gave in to his daughter’s request and gave her her first job. She would take on the responsibility of cutting up enough pepinos (cucumbers) to fill a bucket. 

“I gotta say I was really fast, and I remember he’d give me like $5 for each bucket I filled,” Barragan said, chuckling at the memory. “I know chopping up pepinos doesn’t sound like a big task, but it was. The pepinos were for his cóctel, so it had to be done right.”

As Don Diego’s business continued to grow, his daughter insisted that he open a restaurant or add more items to his menu. The father of four would shut her down, saying “his customers knew he kept it simple and good.”

Once while her parents were out of town, she tried opening the garage to show her father that she was responsible enough to run his business. “Girl, hardly anyone came,” she said laughing. Little did she know he had let his customers know that he wasn’t going to be selling that weekend. 

Overall their journey as a family-owned business has not been an easy one. When she was younger, she recalls the health department arriving at her house.

“They were so quick to grab my dad’s items, throwing them away,” she said of the incident. “I remember feeling so vulnerable. I couldn’t even help my dad; it was traumatizing for us.”

It’s an experience that she would eventually go through again years later. But nothing ever prepared her for what she said was one of the hardest things her family has been through her father’s death, who in 2016 died after being diagnosed with pneumonia. She said before he was intubated and unable to speak, he gave her his blessing to continue his business that began in that garage in Long Beach. 

Elsa Barragan proudly stands in front of her first Mariscos el Garage food truck.
Elsa Barragan proudly stands in front of her first Mariscos el Garage food truck. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
A photo of Don Diego was placed on each table at Barragan's grand opening on Sunday, July 18 in Long Beach.
A photo of Don Diego was placed on each table at Barragan's grand opening on Sunday, July 18 in Long Beach. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

She said it was around 2 AM when her father tugged at her mom. Having difficulty speaking, he slowly told his wife to call Barragan. Her mom, a bit confused, asked him why? To which he said, “llámala y dile que cocine los camarónes.” “Call her and tell her to cook the shrimp.” Not wanting to wake up Barragan, her mom pretended to call her and told her father that she said “el camarón esta bonito.” “The shrimp is pretty.” Shortly after, his oxygen dropped, he shed a tear, and that was the last time he spoke.  

“I think he knew he wasn’t going to make it. He never let anyone cook his shrimp, and it felt like he was giving me the OK,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I remember after that I went and whispered in his ear and told him, ‘It’s OK, Dad, I’m gonna take good care of mom and the garage, don’t worry.’”

A few weeks after his passing, her mother approached Barragan and asked her if she wanted to open the garage again. “I said yes so fast because I knew what this garage meant to my dad and my family,” she said.  

That garage represented the family’s hard work. It put her brother through college and paid for anything they needed growing up. 

37-year-old chef Elsa Barragan holds her mother inside of what once was her father's sacred place. His garage, where he served the community of Long Beach since 1996.
37-year-old chef Elsa Barragan holds her mother inside of what once was her father's sacred place. His garage, where he served the community of Long Beach since 1996. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

Fast forward five years and Barragan realizes the promise she made to her dad in his final days. On Sunday, accompanied by a banda, she kicked off the opening of Mariscos El Garage, the food truck, in Long Beach. The location where she will be selling from holds a special place in her heart. In that same corner used to be “Me N Ed’s Pizza Parlor,” the only place her dad would leave his garage for. Although the pizza parlor is no longer there, she can’t help but feel like her being there is further proof that it’s all meant to be. 

When visiting her food truck, you’ll be able to taste her father’s signature cóctel de camarón. Her line of ceviches and three different styles of aguachiles all come with their unique salsas. One of her most famous dishes is the taco Gobernador, a cheesy shrimp taco accompanied with an addicting salsa roja. They’re so good the most one person has ever eaten in one sitting has been an exaggerating 14 tacos. 

The food on her menu is influenced by her parents, who are from Michoacán, and her husband, who is from Sinaloa. From the beginning, Barragan wanted to make sure she made food that people didn’t have to fix at home. Food that is so good that it could be enjoyed without feeling like something needs to be added. In the last five years, her business has grown so much that she has been able to retire her mom, employ her sister, and soon own her first home. 

As for her dad, she said she’s had dreams where she sees him standing in line outside her truck. Or dreams where he’s next to her helping her make tacos.

“It brings me so many emotions because it has always been a struggle for us, and now with the opening of the food truck, it’s like full circle for us,” she said. “I kept my promise. I just hope he's proud of me because he prepared me for this very moment. I wouldn’t have this if it weren’t for him.” 

Address to Barragan’s New Location: 1901 CA - 1, Long Beach CA 90806. Follow Mariscos El Garage on Instagram here

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