Owning a restaurant is a risk, but it’s also a privilege—one these first-generation Americans take very seriously
Graphic by Alex Hinton/Photos by Talia Moore and Tricia Vuong
In California, immigrant entrepreneurs like Zacil “Sizzle” Pech are opening restaurants with—and for—their parents.
Zacil Pech may be tender-hearted, but it only takes a few minutes to know she won’t take shit from anybody.
The Counter’s senior producers, Talia Moore and Tricia Vuong, contributed photography for this piece.
Pech often sports perfectly-winged eyeliner, bright red lips, gold hoops, and waist-length curly hair with a side shave. Better known as “Sizzle,” she cuts a striking image when she’s hustling to fill orders at her restaurant or spinning records as resident DJ of the roving Latinx dance party Cumbiatón. Now 32, Sizzle came to the United States in the 1990s with her mom as a timid kid from Guerrero, Mexico. Like many first-generation Mexican American kids before her, Sizzle found a home and her voice in Boyle Heights, a community that is a “center of gravity” for Latinos in East Los Angeles. Now Sizzle is making waves with Sazón, the Huntington Park, California, restaurant she opened in July with—and for—her mom, Maria Del Socorro Vazquez, who handles the cooking. Lovingly known as “Coco,” Sizzle’s mom spent decades in the United States doing labor-intensive and risky work cleaning houses and selling her Guerrerense and Yucatecán cooking on the streets of East L.A. before street vending in Los Angeles was legal.
Local media can’t get enough of Sizzle. After all, her story is fundamentally different from typical food media profiles. She’s not the
“I come from an underserved community in East Los Angeles and I know what it’s like not to have access to spaces and to resources that other people do. I know what it’s like to come from a community with so much talent and so many gifts that aren’t invested in,” Sizzle said.
Sizzle is a possibility model for those of us who fight to give our immigrant parents a dignified life and a shot at fulfilling their decades-old dreams. Sizzle’s story is powerful. But many children of immigrants promise our parents more and better. It doesn’t always come to fruition. There are unknown numbers of talented, self-taught, immigrant bakers and cooks like Coco, who will never see the inside of their own brick and mortar because business ownership is still out of the realm of possibility—especially in rapidly gentrifying communities. For Sizzle and Coco, Sazón is a gamble, and it’s also their first shot at creating intergenerational wealth in their family.
But Sizzle is less of an anomaly than you might imagine. In California and beyond, multitudes of first-generation kids act as conduits for their parents’ cooking dreams, serving as the driving forces behind their families’ chances at a different kind of trajectory in the U.S. In Sizzle’s orbit alone, she has numerous friends and collaborators who are helping to guide each other through the business side of the industry so their parents can focus on the food. Some, like Ju Hong, have no interest in cooking. Others, like Reyna Maldonado, see cooking as ancestral knowledge and a gift to share with the community. Like Hong and Maldonado, Sizzle–a former immigrant-rights labor organizer–entered the food industry from the world of activism.
These friends have banked on the skills, strategies, and connections they developed as activists to help shape their family’s success in the restaurant industry. So far so good, though owning a restaurant is an ever-fluctuating risk, as the pandemic has taught us. But if it pays off for these immigrant entrepreneurs, it has the potential to create financial stability that can change the course of their families’ lives. “Wealth” is subjective, but for Sizzle and her friends, it looks like having money in the bank, the freedom to explore new business opportunities, access to things like healthcare, self-care, stable housing, and eventually retirement. It’s also the ability to share knowledge with other immigrant families, and to build up their communities.
“The culture of the city—the real gems of the city—come from our communities,” Sizzle said. “So, having support from other people who know that and who live that reality and are fighting for the same things for their families makes the biggest difference.”
“How do I make sure we have a safety net?”
Ju Hong is a longtime friend of Sizzle’s, who has offered guidance and moral support from up the coast in California’s Bay Area. Hong spent the last four years helping his mother Sunny Bae run her Oakland restaurant, Daol Tofu & Korean BBQ—though he’s far more comfortable talking about immigration than he is about the food industry.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Hong made headlines for “heckling” former President Barack Obama during a San Francisco immigration rally. But it wasn’t really heckling. Hong—a young college student at the time and an approved guest of the White House —simply pleaded with Obama to use his executive power to halt deportations, which were at an all-time high. As an undocumented immigrant from South Korea, Hong has spent the entirety of his adult life fighting for
Before emigrating to the U.S., Hong’s family already had deep roots in South Korea’s restaurant industry. His grandmother was a restaurant worker and so was Bae, who even had her own kitchen. Bae wanted to open a new restaurant when the family migrated to the United States in 2001, but it would take 16 years to achieve her goal.
“My mom always had hustle and this intense entrepreneurial spirit. In the United States, she didn’t know very much English and it was hard for her to navigate the country and find jobs, but she started working in Korean and Japanese restaurants and she cleaned houses to support me and my sister. It’s not been easy. There have been a lot of tears and a lot of frustration, but she never gave up,” Hong said.
Make no mistake: This is not a quaint story about achieving the American Dream. Hong had very complicated feelings about his mom’s decision to re-enter such a harsh industry; he was initially unsure if he even wanted to play a role in it. The 32-year-old can still vividly recall his mom’s restaurant in South Korea and the crushing disappointments and financial setbacks his family endured to keep its doors open.
“When I think of walking into that restaurant, my body kind of tightens up. It was such hard work and long hours.”
“It was actually a very traumatic experience,” Hong said. “When I think of walking into that restaurant, my body kind of tightens up. It was such hard work and long hours. There’s so much work behind the scenes and then there’s the actual cooking and dealing with customers. There were a lot of expenses and a lot of lost revenue. We struggled to make ends meet and it was worse than living paycheck-to-paycheck. I just remember the overwhelming stress of that time and the conflict that it created in our household. It wasn’t a good energy. That’s why I avoided the restaurant industry.”
Before helping with Daol, Hong had established himself as one of the most prominent undocumented Asian activists in the country—he didn’t see the restaurant industry in his future. Hong said he stumbled into his “true calling” when, as a young person, he found out he was undocumented. (It wasn’t a family secret, necessarily. It just wasn’t made explicitly clear that he didn’t have papers.) This realization transformed his life. Broadly, advocacy organizations and the media often frame immigration as a Latino issue, ignoring the realities of over a million undocumented Asian immigrants who did not traverse the borderlands, but rather flew to the United States with a visa and simply overstayed. Hong dedicated all of his time and energy to finding a solution for families like his, thus becoming a formidable force in the immigrant rights movement.
When he initially pushed back against opening Daol, it wasn’t that Hong didn’t believe in Bae’s skills—his mom’s sundubu and Korean BBQ were legendary. There was just too much risk involved, and he hated the idea of having to borrow money to get the restaurant off the ground. But it became clear he couldn’t fight his mom’s determination, so Daol Tofu & Korean BBQ opened its doors in 2017.
At first, Hong carefully weighed how much of an emotional, mental, or physical investment he wanted to make in the restaurant—he was firm about his boundaries. Plus, he was traveling a lot, doing policy advocacy work and grassroots organizing. He promoted the restaurant when he could, but the day-to-day business of Daol Tofu was left to his mom and sister. Then, a few years ago, the distance Hong strategically built between himself and the restaurant began to weigh on him.
“[A]s I’ve gotten older, I understand the importance of family and building financial stability. I’ve thought a lot about what I can do at this moment in my life that isn’t just about focusing on my career. What can I do to help my family? How do I make sure we have a safety net? How can I make sure my mom has stability?” Hong said.
Hong said that while his mom is an amazing cook, she lacks experience in operations, finance, social media—subjects he learned about from years of nonprofit organizing. Over the last few years, Hong has revamped the restaurant’s bookkeeping system, changed the point-of-sale system to make it more seamless, and he’s taken over advertising, marketing, and social media. His work led to a redesigned website and a few significant press hits, including a public media piece that cited Daol Tofu as reinvigorating the Korean BBQ scene in Oakland. He’s even partnered with local community organizations for events at the restaurant.
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It’s clear that Hong and Sizzle trade ideas, and that they are also creating a roadmap for other immigrant kids supporting their parents’ cooking dreams.
“There’s a small group of us with similar family situations in the restaurant industry and we support each other by sharing resources, information, and opportunities. It helps us sustain ourselves personally, but also helps our restaurants grow and hopefully become more stable,” Hong said.
“I want a different future for them.”
Reyna Maldonado never thought her family would have a business. When they came to the United States in 1996 from the Guerrero region of Mexico, Maldonado’s mother Ofelia Barajas began street vending, selling her now-famous tamales for $1.50 each. It was just enough to pay the bills.
“Of course we wanted a restaurant, but it seemed like a very distant possibility, like if it were actually ever going to happen it would take a very, very long time,” Maldonado said. “In our community, we saw business owners who looked like us, who had similar experiences, but it just felt like we would never have the resources or the money to even think about a restaurant.”
Like Sizzle and Hong, Maldonado inadvertently entered the food world by way of organizing. The grassroots groups that Maldonado worked with while organizing around issues like immigrant rights and housing justice were some of her mom’s first catering clients. But there were also the immigrant men who flocked to Barajas’ home cooking, men living without their families for the first time while working in the United States.
“That’s why I call my mom a cook-healer. My mom’s recipes are like magic. Her food transports people, and it makes people feel at home,” Maldonado said.
Barajas wanted to share her gift with the larger community and Maldonado wanted to help her do that, but there were some serious roadblocks even beyond basic finances. Both of Maldonado’s parents spent years working in restaurants, but they didn’t know about the business side of the industry. La Cocina helped remedy this. The incubator program equips working-class women of color and immigrant women with six months of technical assistance to establish the foundation of their business, then grants them access to commercial kitchen space. La Cocina has been a game-changer for street vendors and other skilled cooks like Barajas, who, despite having years of professional cooking and business ownership under their belts, encountered an utter lack of opportunity in the restaurant industry.
La Cocina set Maldonado’s family on a path that enabled them to expand on Barajas’ thriving food vending business by turning it into La Guerrera’s Kitchen, which is just now recovering from several seasons of pandemic chaos. Since 2020, La Guerrera has gone through one closure because of the Bay Area’s skyrocketing rents and two relocations, which Maldonado jokingly calls “migrations.” While it was incredibly stressful to move—especially during one of the busiest times of year and in the midst of tamal season—it was also fortuitous. La Guerrera’s Kitchen secured a vending spot in Oakland’s Swan’s Market, meaning the business is settling into its most visible location since opening in 2019.
Earlier this summer, when Maldonado’s family was preparing to sign a new lease on the coveted location, it inspired a moment of reflection—and giddy panic. Maldonado said she and her mom stood together, nervously laughing at the idea of signing a 10-year lease.
“Making long-term plans isn’t always a focus in immigrant families, especially when there is a worry about one day getting deported or experiencing something else that knocks you off your course.”
“Making long-term plans isn’t always a focus in immigrant families, especially when there is a worry about one day getting deported or experiencing something else that knocks you off your course. In my family, we haven’t really been able to plan ahead like this before,” Maldonado said.
But as La Guerrera’s Kitchen prepares to enter a new, ostensibly more stable phase, Maldonado wants to think about the future more than ever. She grew up watching her parents work grueling hours while their family navigated poverty in a new country that promised so much, but where the threats of family separation and housing insecurity always loomed.
“I want a different future for them. I want to support my parents to turn this into a business where they don’t have to work to death; they can also enjoy their life. We’ve been in survival mode, but I like thinking about what’s on the other side of that. I want my parents to be able to retire one day,” Maldonado said.
Whether La Guerrera’s Kitchen will lead to intergenerational wealth remains to be seen, but Maldonado has an expansive way of thinking about “wealth” in the restaurant industry.
“I don’t know if this business will lead to much money for our family, but knowing my parents might be able to rest one day? That is wealth,” Maldonado said. “Wealth is also taking what we know, what we have learned, the resources we now have access to and sharing that with other immigrant families. This is a really inequitable industry. Look at who owns the restaurant and who works in the front and compare that to who is working in the back doing the cooking. So the other thing I know is that if La Guerrera goes places, we are taking our community with us.”
The starting point
Opening Sazón was a more than year-long ordeal that started during the pandemic with funds Sizzle saved from several years-worth of gigs. At first, financial stability was the furthest thing from her mind because opening the restaurant completely destabilized her life and her finances. Now that the restaurant is successful, Sizzle is beginning to enjoy the work more–and she’s injecting more of her personality into its programming and menu. Sazón’s community events, mostly structured around brunch, are wildly popular. Where else in Southeast L.A. can you see a Jenni Rivera drag tribute show while feasting on tres leches french toast and café de olla? But she’s also allowing herself to think about the future.
Whatever happens, she said, Sizzle never wants to lose sight of the “cultural wealth” that got her family to this moment, like her mom’s pozole verde that has been passed down from generation to generation. But there was a moment in our initial interview—after Sizzle explained the supportive role that Maldonado and Hong have played in her life—when it became clear that she’s still making sense of the possibilities that business ownership has opened up for her, her family, and her community. Sazón is just one of several businesses that she wants to open one day. The DJ is considering nightlife venues, perhaps even other restaurants to highlight various aspects of Yucatecán and Guerrerense cooking—regional cuisines that she says remain underrepresented in Los Angeles’ expansive food scene.
She described a moment in Sazón’s kitchen, just days after the restaurant opened in July. Sizzle was standing next to her mom, shaping masa into sopes, when she had a flashback of the same scene more than 20 years prior—except they were standing in the kitchen of their old, tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights. This is back when Coco was a street vendor, and Sizzle woke up early before school to help her prep food.
“It was one of those full-circle moments. Like, ‘Yeah, bitch! Now we’re in a whole-ass fucking professional kitchen,’” Sizzle said, growing emotional. “I felt overwhelmed by it, and I still do. This is the hardest I’ve worked in my life and I know this is just the starting point for me and my family. Now we have access to things we were deprived of and it means a lot–and it’s a lot of responsibility. My motto has always been ‘when one of us makes it, we all make it.’ My homies have been rooting for me and pulling me up and now I can pull up other people too.”