Imagine entering a job with no formal training—no training at all, really—and knowing that you must succeed. You have to. The company is depending on you. And everyone is looking up to you. You are the boss, after all.
It wouldn’t be easy. But you’d have to adapt.
HECHO EN MÉXICO
Enter La Palma restaurant. The Thibodaux eatery has been pleasing customers with authentic cuisine hailing from Zacatecas, Mexico, since early 2005, when the Torres family moved from California. Raudel Torres runs the restaurant with his wife, Marisela, who heads the kitchen. This many years in, they have the restaurant “thing” figured out, but nothing this good comes easily.
“It’s pretty funny,” Raudel says. “I guess La Palma got started because when we first came over here, we could not find a job.”
The year prior, Raudel and Marisela came to Thibodaux to visit family; they saw a building—the old Rinky Dink, for those of you who remember—for rent.
“When I first came over here, like a year [before], just to visit my family over here, it was for rent,” Raudel says. “When we moved over here a year later, it was still for rent; so I kind of joked with my wife—I said, ‘I think that place is waiting for us.’”
The building must have been waiting—La Palma has been serving up its creations ever since. But the couple did not find an easy start. They decided to open a restaurant with no previous experience. The struggles and trials of trying to get a new business up and running are now viewed as a learning process that was well worth the effort. The menu had to be adapted to a taste preferred by South Louisianians. And that took time. Out of all the initial entrées offered, none have made the cut to today’s menu. But that’s OK. Raudel knows it’s an evolving process.
“They started asking for more,” Raudel says. “‘Do you have enchiladas? Do you have tamales? What about carnitas?’”
So Raudel, or his wife, rather, gave the people what they wanted—the Zacatecas way.
“So we started doing one at a time,” Raudel says. “You know, my wife is a great cook, and now she all of a sudden became a chef out of nowhere, from a cook to a chef out of nowhere. So now she can do anything just by experimenting, by working on it.”
THE MAIN INGREDIENT
One big adjustment was warm salsa. Raudel shares that there is no warm salsa in California or Mexico, but the customers requested it so frequently that they had to adapt. Marisela, in her infinite cooking wisdom, was able to come up with a recipe that pleased the customers, and has been serving it alongside traditional salsas ever since.
From there, the menu was able to take shape into what it is today. But it was hard work. There was a long stretch of time, seven arduous months, that the Torreses worked every single day. That was a big adjustment for the pair—they were previously self-employed and working three or four days a week. Eventually, to regain control of their personal lives and give themselves some time off, Raudel decided to close La Palma on Sundays, hoping it would work out. It did, of course.
“It was extremely difficult because now that we look back, we don’t even know how we survived or made it through, because we made so many mistakes in the process,” Raudel says.
But let’s revisit that salsa idea.
There’s definitely enough salsa at La Palma to make a meal of itself. Once you walk in the door, immediately to your right is a salsa bar featuring a variety of authentic, mouthwatering salsa in all of its warm, or chilled, spicy, garlic-y, cilantro-y goodness. Take your pick—you won’t be disappointed. There’s a secret, somewhat of a secret, to these delicious tomato dips—the peppers.
LA PALMA PEPPERS
Raudel has his own pepper garden that supplies La Palma with all of its pepper needs. His parents had pepper plants in California, and the Torreses brought a few of the plants with them to Thibodaux for personal use. The couple liked them so much that the peppers were incorporated into the cuisine. Raudel calls them “La Palma peppers” because he’s not quite sure what they truly are—not jalapeño, chili or cayenne. They are small, spicy peppers—La Palma peppers.
“That’s a big thing for us, over here, especially for our salsas,” Raudel says. “We didn’t even realize how good they were until one year, I think our third year of being open, I didn’t produce enough peppers for us to make it through, and I ran out. We said, ‘OK, peppers are peppers.’”
But peppers are not peppers, it seems. The store-bought peppers were inconsistent; some were bland and some were far too spicy. Despite their best efforts, the flavor just wasn’t right. The key to a successful restaurant is consistently good food, and Raudel understood that and knew that his salsas weren’t up to standard for his customers. So Raudel contacted his parents in California to send him some peppers. The salsas were saved, but Raudel made sure that never happened again.
“Since that year, I decided to plant enough peppers so that we would never have that problem, because it was really something,” Raudel says. “We tried every single pepper that we could get our hands on, and we struggled.”
Since then, his garden has expanded in his own backyard, and has moved into his niece’s backyard as well. She and her mother can often be found helping out Marisela in the kitchen. This is where Marisela shines.
IT TAKES TWO … AND A TEAM
Raudel shares that his wife has the amazing ability to replicate any dish she tries with some experimentation, and she is able to create exactly what the customers want when they make special requests.
“That’s a person that has a lot of talent,” Raudel says.
He knows that La Palma’s success can be very much attributed to his wife’s cooking abilities. Raudel is the face of La Palma, often making his rounds and chatting and joking with patrons. He’s quick with a smile and a laugh, and he enjoys himself. Marisela will occasionally join him, but quickly makes her way back to the kitchen.
“Every now and then I go in the kitchen, but I suffer in there,” Raudel says. “I enjoy being over here with my customers and basically working the front. I guess I like to talk, and my wife, she doesn’t like to be in the front over here. In a way, I guess, that was kind of perfect. It kind of worked out for both of us. I don’t cook, myself. I don’t enjoy it. When people come over here and ask me for some recipes, I kind of joke around and tell them, ‘I cannot give you any recipes.’ But it’s not because I don’t want to tell them—I don’t know how to do it.”
The restaurant keeps Raudel in for long 12- and 14-hour days, but he is happy with his profession, so he keeps on smiling. His business is a way to share a little piece of Zacatecas with the people of the country he now calls home. He is a motivator at the restaurant, and he tries to help his employees see themselves to a bright future.
“I don’t want to keep my employees here, my help here, for life,” Raudel says. “If I can make it over here, anybody can do it.”
He wants them to be happy and to feel at home, noting that the restaurant is like a little family. But he also wants his employees to succeed and sees their time at La Palma as a stepping stone on their way to someplace better. Dining at the restaurant reveals nothing less—attentive, smiling servers. That attitude is extended to his customers as well. Raudel is loyal to signage in his restaurant that tells patrons to inform someone if they are unhappy with their meal.
“I like when someone tells me that they don’t care for something. You know, I don’t get upset—I enjoy it,” Raudel says. “I appreciate it because that sends a little red flag for me to check what’s going on. Because, if nobody tells me anything about it, I can serve it to someone else. I try to have a lot of communication with my customers over here so they don’t feel bad letting me know—and most of them, believe me, they let me know. After eight years, we kind of know each other, so they kind of feel like they are home. They let me know, and I let them know if I don’t like something about them, too.”