Day of the dead in the time of coronavirus

Day of the Dead in the time of coronavirus

De Alba family invites customers to join in Day of the Dead remembrances

De Alba family, which includes parents Rosa and Carlos and Rosa De Alba, Karla, Frida and Ricky

by Ruth Stroud

During a visit to Tomatillo Mexican Grill at the end of October, we found a large, colorful photo display with framed pictures of deceased family members and friends, decorated skulls and skeletons, candles, paper flowers, crosses, chocolates, cups of water, fruit, and little bowls and plates full of painted representations of cakes and sugar-topped breads. 

Owner Rosa De Alba explained that the ofrenda, or altar, was in celebration of Day of the Dead, which takes place immediately after Halloween.

A pink neon sign above the display said, “It was all a dream.”

It referred to the American Dream that she and her husband hoped to find when they came to America in 1993. She feels that they found it.

“Now we can make a living at what we like to do,” she said.

Their children are pursuing their dreams also. Frida, 25,  hopes to become a lawyer; Ricky, 23, coaches soccer in Lancaster, and Karla, 30,  bakes and handles the accounts.

Although there are often sweet foods and candy involved in Day of the Dead festivities, unlike Halloween, this is a religious holiday for Mexicans and corresponds on the calendar with the Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Its roots go back thousands of years to customs of Mexico’s Aztec, Toltec and Nahua peoples.

Rosa said the 2017 Disney/Pixar film Coco is  a fairly accurate representation of the holiday’s significance.

“It’s a big tradition for us Mexicans,” she said. “We believe dead people come (back) on November 1 and 2. We do the altar and usually we make their favorite food and drink so they can celebrate with us.”

One of those honored in the display was Rosa’s grandfather Dionisio.

“I feel like he’s still alive because he’s part of my life, my memories. He’ll always be part of me,” Rosa said.

Although her children didn’t know Dionisio, whom Rosa and her nine siblings called Papa Nicho, “they know his story,” she said. Despite having no formal education, her grandpa oversaw a farm, had a gift for math, recited poetry, and was proud of his Mexican heritage.

She also added photos of her father, father-in-law, one of her daughter’s friends, an aunt, a family dog, and pictures of departed relatives and friends that her customers brought in to contribute to the display.

“We tell them they’re welcome to bring their pictures if they want to be part of the celebration.”

Ofrendas are usually small, private home displays. It’s customary to light the way for the dead to return with bright marigold petals, Rosa said. On Nov. 1, the first day of the holiday, she replaced the plastic and ceramic foods with real food she knew her deceased relatives would have enjoyed. Nov. 1 is the day to remember children who died, while Nov. 2 is for the adults, Rosa said.

“We believe they come, they see the light, and they eat with us,” Rosa explained.

Her father loved a simple pasta soup that Rosa put on the ofrenda in a tiny bowl on the evening of Nov. 1. Her grandfather favored a taco made with refried pinto beans, which she also made in his honor. Her father-in-law had a soft spot for chocolate, and his birthday was on Jan. 6, 12 days after Christmas, another special day known as Día de los Reyes (Day of the Kings). She always makes sure there’s a special sweet bread, Pan de Muerto, for him, a traditional food often served on that day.

Pan de Muerto, literally “bread of the dead,” is a round, sweet, rich loaf usually topped with dough fashioned to look like bones, sometimes in a circular pattern or in a cross. The bread struck me as somewhere between brioche and challah — rich with eggs and butter, flavored with anise, and sprinkled with sugar, or covered with a sticky orange juice glaze. You can find various recipes for it online. 

The American Dream

At the beginning of 2020, with a thriving catering business and a small express eatery inside a Shell gas station on Hawthorne Boulevard, Rosa wasn’t excited when an opportunity to expand the family’s business to include a restaurant in Rancho Palos Verdes presented itself.

But her husband Carlos and son Ricky wanted to do it, “so I had to support them,” she said.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Tomatillo opened in February, just before the pandemic forced them to move to takeout and delivery, and now outside tables. 

Customers loyal to the previous restaurant owners showed up to support the De Albas, even when the pandemic forced the family to switch from in-door dining to take-out, delivery and outdoor seating.

With their attention to detail and personal warmth, they manage to contribute a surprising amount of warmth and personality to the enterprise.

The sign at the entrance says, “Bienvenidos a su casa” (“welcome to your house”). Carlos and Ricky work behind the counter taking orders, Rosa, Karla and Frida prepare the food.

The fare includes many things you might expect — tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chiles rellenos, and taquitos. But there are specials you might not expect, like mole, chicken tinga, and vegan tacos al pastor.

Rosa learned many of the recipes from her mother when she was growing up in Guadalajara, Jalisco, in western Mexico. Some of the newer ideas, particularly the vegan options, such as the vegan hibiscus tacos (tangy pieces of the flower, which look like shredded beef), come from Frida, a vegan.

Rosa’s favorites are the mole and chiles rellenos. She loves to cook, and especially enjoys watching people’s faces light up when they taste her food.

“I cook everything the way I cook for my family,” she said. 

Always calorie-conscious, I usually order the salad with both chicken and a little barbecued beef (barbacoa) while coveting the elote (Mexican street corn slathered in a spicy mixture of mayo, crema, chili powder and cheese), and Karla’s  tres leches cake.

Mole is a complicated sauce with Aztec roots that has multiple regional variations in Mexico, some including chocolate and ground seeds. Rosa uses her mole for burritos and enchiladas and in chicken dishes, but it’s not on the regular menu. She only makes it on special occasions. “It’s something I am proud of. Everybody loves it,” she said. 

Now that the family is facing limitations because of the pandemic, how does Rosa feel about the chance her family  took on the restaurant? She says she’s grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“They treat us like family,” she said. “I really thank God for that.”

Tomatillo Mexican Grill, 31218 Palos Verdes Drive W., Rancho Palos Verdes, California, (310) 544-4600.

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Written by: Jefferson Graham

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