When I first step into Diego’s Taqueria, it’s a December night in 2019. My friend and dining companion, Onnesha Roychoudhuri—an author and Kingston resident, as well as a Diego’s regular—has been telling me about the place for some time. Naturally, she has my attention with the phrase “out-of-control tasty smoked beet taco.”
But when she talks about loving the restaurant, the sentiments are about much more than the food. “I brought a book and sat at the bar,” Roychoudhuri says of her own first experience. “Next thing I knew, over three hours had passed and I hadn’t cracked the spine of that book. Instead, I had a heartfelt conversation with Isaac about family origins and loss, and joined the staff in an end-of-shift tequila shot.”
The experience at Diego’s, operated by husband-and-wife team Isaac and Elena Cruz, was a big part of her decision to move. At the time, she was a visitor to Kingston, trying to get a feel for the neighborhood. But by the end of the meal, she says she was sold. “Basically, I went in expecting a quick taco fix, and I left understanding that I was home.”
When we sit down at the bar, I immediately understand. Isaac pours our drinks, takes our orders, and tunes the TV to our chosen channel. He is the quintessential front-of-house kind of guy—gregarious and engaging, and liberal with pours of mezcal even for a newcomer like me. He’s happy to bend your ear about anything from the Grateful Dead’s tour schedule to food systems in Puerto Rico to politics at any level. Elena is the chef and culinary wunderkind behind that beet taco, as well as the rest of the eclectic menu. Her personality is evident in the playfulness of the options, the quality of ingredients, and the care and thoughtfulness of each composition. And every item we order is outrageously delicious.
The couple, born and raised New Yorkers—Isaac a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, and Elena, Russian Jewish from Staten Island—have been based in the Hudson Valley for two decades, and in Kingston for half that time. They describe that in part, the motivation behind their Mexican concept was about taking up a torch in the community. In opening Diego’s, they assumed a space on Uptown Kington’s John Street left behind by another Mexican spot when it closed, putting their passion for the cuisine and their own creativity into something they felt the area was now wanting for. And judging by the fact that despite the late hour and cold weather, the place is bustling, every table is taken, and every server is smiling, it appears they understood that need very well.
What I find especially refreshing in talking to the Cruzes from my very first meal at Diego’s (beyond the strawberry habanero margarita in front of me) is their willingness to share authentic thoughts and experiences when it comes to running a restaurant.
When I formally interview the couple in January, our exchange is an extension of one we began at the bar, and the Cruzes are as transparent as they’d been upon first meeting. It’s the kind of conversation that’s so valuable, because sharing it means being able to give readers useful, reliable insight.
We discuss what it’s like to be a small business in a small market, the struggles they manage to mostly avoid, but also the ones still shared with major metros, like an anemic labor pool and payroll costs that aren’t much different than those in nearby New York City.
“It’s what keeps you up at night,” Isaac says, describing how important it is to them to create jobs, and to provide a nurturing environment for the people they employ (twenty-seven at the time) amid an industry that makes it famously difficult to do so. These are hurdles compounded by a rising cost of living to which the Cruzes have been witness over the years. “When I moved here, you could have rent between $400 and $800 per month,” Isaac says. “How do we provide an opportunity for employees to advance in life, or to even have a place [to live]? We want to be able to do right by our staff.”
That rise in cost has been dramatic; it is also not commensurate with what the public is willing to pay for food. The conversation makes it clear that the notion that it’s “cheaper” to operate outside a major metro is a false one, further evidenced by the fact that their ingredients are purchased from the very same farms and purveyors as restaurants in New York City that command a higher ticket price. We discuss the tenuousness between providing a high-quality, wholesome product while being able to offer it at a price point agreeable to a varied clientele. “We want to use the most local meat,” Elena tells me “But at $8 or $10 dollars per pound when I’m charging $5 for a taco, it doesn’t really work.”
Purchasing locally is part of the Diego’s ethos for purposes of quality, but also because of their belief in supporting other local businesses. “We get our tortillas locally made by a family who’s been here a long time,” Isaac says. “That’s really important to us.”
As we talk about life in Kingston, Elena and Isaac also spend a good deal of time touching on their own favorite spots in town. They’re excited to share recommendations for places they think I should try on my next visit, ones they frequent on a regular basis. A restaurant like Diego’s is the lifeblood of a community not just for its own contribution as a business, but for its patronage of others.
Mostly, though what the Cruzes talk about are human exchanges—between employer and staff, restaurant and diner, between neighbors and one another. As a married couple, Isaac says how their own working relationship has motivated him. “To have [this] experience with someone who has the palate and the drive that [Elena] has, has also been really special,” he tells me.
It’s clear that relationships are the core of their work. Elena and Isaac show up every day to build something for and with their patrons, strengthening existing ties and creating new ones when, say, someone drops in for a beet taco and a shot of mezcal. And based on what I’ve witnessed at Diego’s, that work has developed a very dedicated clientele.
I see Elena and Isaac again on March 11, 2020, when we have a photoshoot scheduled. I’m greeted with a shot of mezcal, and although it’s only three in the afternoon and I’m technically working, I can’t help but accept when Isaac hands it over. I let the booze warm me while we stand outside, watching the neighborhood of Uptown Kingston come alive in the slightly more temperate weather. We discuss the news: warnings of a virus and rumors of restaurant restrictions. But even then, it’s abstract, and it’s hard to speculate with so little real information.
Five days later, Diego’s, like most restaurants around the country, closed its doors to diners. And the story I was about to file was suddenly wildly out of touch with reality. I put it aside thinking, like so many, that in a few weeks they’d reopen their doors and I could resurrect the story with a few small tweaks. I tell Elena and Isaac I’ll be in touch soon.
But before we know it, weeks have become months. I stay connected to the Cruzes, checking in every so often by text, and trying to follow along with their “pivots” and see how they’re holding up. And then in May, I catch up with Elena by phone.
“We’re still doing the Thursday to Sunday thing,” she says of their Covid-revised hours of operation.
She gives me a rundown of how the restaurant functions these days, painting a very different picture than the one I’d come to know in those first visits, but no less focused on personal interaction. Diego’s doesn’t rely on an online system; they’re taking their to-go orders by phone. “An order can take ten minutes, especially with modifications,” she tells me. They’re operating with a skeleton crew, so the Cruzes have been fielding phone calls themselves. They take orders, prep meals, package them in a new makeshift staging area, and answer again when customers call for pick up. “The phone literally rings from the time we open until the second we close,” Elena tells me.
That narrative is one many restaurants have shared recently—of being overwhelmed by work. But she’s wary of the implication that they are somehow experiencing a surging streak of business. She tells me margins are, at best, ten percent. “Rent has not changed and sales tax has not changed, and all the things we have to pay have not changed,” Elena says. “So at some point, it’s not going to work anymore.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped the Cruzes from trying to provide options for both existing patrons and new ones. With the limited schedule, much of their time now is dominated by trying to stay on top of news and make judgement calls that will be best for their staff, their business, and their customers. “We’re making as informed a decision as we can with the information we have,” Elena says. “We do a thing, see how it goes, and if it doesn’t work, we change it.”
The Cruzes are doing what they can to make their business sustainable in the moment. But their specific experience begs a question of what must change in the long-term to make the restaurant business sustainable on a larger scale.
The concerns Elena shares are no different than the ones restaurateurs and chefs at all levels in cities of all sizes have voiced in recent months. “Fifty percent of my overhead has nothing to do with food,” she says. “If I can’t be open to a capacity that’s going to continue to bring in the amount of money I need to maintain this, what’s the plan?” She wonders where a break might be given: “Is it sales tax? Rent money? Insurance allowances?”
Covid has been an industry-wide equalizer, exposing weak points and raising questions that apply to all independent restaurant operators. “There isn’t a broad enough look at the reality of how this industry works,” she says. This has been a major point of conversations about independent restaurants since closures in March, making especially clear the need for diners, consumers, and communities to bolster these businesses.
For Diego’s, this moment demonstrates that its investment in community over the course of six years—which was so evident in my experience with the Cruzes pre-Covid—is playing a critical role in sustaining them during the crisis. “It speaks for itself the fact that we’ve maintained the business we have for the amount of hours we’ve been open,” Elena says. “We have a really great following and gracious customers. We had a good foundation.”
In the meantime, they’re doing what they can to maintain the Diego’s magic—the hospitality for which they’re so well known—under these new and changing circumstances. They’re doing it with small touches, whether by putting speakers outside or bringing tequila shots to customers who come to collect their orders. “Isaac is doing the best he can, trying to keep the momentum going,” Elena says. And momentum, she tells me, has been their main objective. “That phrase is how we’ve made all the choices we’ve made—whatever we can do to just keep the momentum going,” she goes on. “It may not be profitable. It may not be sustainable, but at least it’s not putting a stick in the spokes.”
Back in January, Isaac explained how he and Elena came to their business. Isaac has a military background, and learned the hospitality industry through his work in the business in the decades that followed. Elena did not attend culinary school, but rather followed instinct, studying and self-educating. They are learn-on-the-job kind of people, and that sensibility is guiding their response to the crisis. “[Responding to Covid is] adding challenges and expectations we’re completely unqualified for, and don’t have any real clear guidelines,” Elena says. Their focus is on prioritizing the balance between maintaining their business, and being protective of the people that make it all work. “We’re going to do what we can as safely as we can.”
Right now, the modified business model is allowing them to maintain those relationships that the Cruzes value so deeply. And whether your experience was first at the bar, or more recently in takeout form, in Diego’s, we see why it’s so important that we fight for restaurants. The couple may not have ever guessed they’d be called upon as a source of comfort during a pandemic, but their dedication to Kingston has proved to patrons they can be relied upon, both for food, and as a bright spot in an unprecedented time. “People have been so generous and so happy that we’re here,” Elena tells me of the recent feedback they’ve received from customers.
The Cruzes’ optimism, compassion, and unflagging fearlessness are definitive qualities of restaurateurs—and also of community leaders. “I don’t necessarily look forward to what it will be [post-Covid],” Elena says. “But I’m not afraid of it. I was very afraid of it for a long time, but I don’t feel that way now.”
And despite ongoing adaptation (as of this writing, Diego’s has opened for limited outdoor dining) and concerns about the future, Elena and Isaac continue to bring so much more than food to the table for those who visit Diego’s. Their work creates a sense of home, even when the world looks so unfamiliar. “We’ve managed to maintain some level of normalcy throughout all this,” Elena says. “It has to be different, but there still [are] people trying to maintain the community we have, and that’s what I’ve always loved about Kingston. It’s a small town mentality—everybody helping where they can, to be a community, and that will carry us however it needs to.”