Cicatriz: an essential space in the Juárez neighborhood
Both for its menu and its atmosphere, Cicatriz has become one of the favorite places for those who live in or usually visit the Juárez neighborhood in Mexico City. Brothers Jake and Scarlett Lindeman, from New York, opened the cafe - restaurant - bar in 2017, a few years after moving to the city, fascinated by its food, mezcal and culture. What could a couple of foreigners bring to this great metropolis? In the case of Cicatriz, quite a lot: a space that is neither very sophisticated nor totally popular, and where the small menu offers food based not on Mexican traditions, but on making the most of the freshness and flavor of the ingredients that are obtained. locally. (Among the dishes, the fried chicken sandwich stands out, an American classic not easily found on this side of the border, for example.)
We spoke with Jake Lindeman about the history of Cicatriz, the community they have created within the neighborhood, and the challenges they have faced almost a year ago, since the pandemic began:
First I would like to ask you, how did Scar start?
Of course. My sister Scarlett, who is my partner, is a chef, and she was very interested in Mexican cuisine. She is studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy, and she came here to do some research, as she also writes about the cultural aspects of food. He came, fell in love with the city, and even worked for a time at a local restaurant. Later, when I graduated from university, I was very passionate about mezcal, I started visiting Mexico City and I also fell in love. When we realized that we both wanted to live here, we started talking about the possibility of opening a small cafe. That was about six and a half years ago, and when we started working on it it took a long time to open. We opened Cicatriz in 2017.
Why did you choose the Juárez neighborhood, what was it that attracted you to this area?
When we began to know the different neighborhoods of the city, we always liked Juárez compared to Roma or other areas, for its neighborhood vibe. Also, to be frank, the rental prices were much more affordable, especially considering that we wanted to open a casual cafe, which was not too expensive, with inexpensive options on the menu. The places in colonies like Rome, even at that time, were spaces with higher prices and with food a little less everyday; spaces more for special occasions than to spend any day.
So from the beginning they intended for Scar to be a casual place.
Yes, from the beginning we seek to be in the middle. When we opened, we felt like there weren't as many places at that midpoint within these parts of the city. There were incredible restaurants, both very high-end restaurants and very good and accessible carts. But this idea of using high-quality ingredients but in a very casual way was not very popular, and even now it is still difficult to find. So we wanted to sell natural wines or good rare mezcals, and at the same time serve simple but very beautiful eggs and bread. This did not exist in a place that was also cheap, where people could go regularly.
Scar has created a very strong and loyal community; there are always people and, almost always, at least half are people who go very often. Was this your intention when opening, or did it come organically?
I think everyone talks about wanting to create a community and a place that is strongly linked to the neighborhood, but it is something difficult to do. Perhaps the answer is that it was a combination of things that we both knew were missing. At that time, if you wanted a cocktail, you had to go to a special cocktail bar, or to a canteen, and I like both but I don't think there was a place that felt ... I guess like the places we liked in Nueva York, more casual but always with a lot of focus on quality and a relaxed atmosphere. I think we opened something we missed about our city, and it turned out that others also felt that something of this kind was missing. It's cool that there is a place where you can have a very good bottle of wine, or a Modelo that costs the same as anywhere else in the area. You can go and have a more expensive dinner, or pay little more than what you would pay at McDonalds.
The menu is small and changes very little… why have they been so faithful to this formula?
I do not know if you have seen the kitchen but it is very small, in addition to keeping prices relatively low, we have to have a fairly stable menu. The idea was to have a small menu with some elements that change depending on the season. So, for example, we always have jams to go with bread, and those vary. We use different vegetables for some dishes, but the idea is always the same. We regularly offer some "special" of the house, which is temporary, because our limitations regarding the size of the kitchen and the prices we offer do not allow us to change the menu completely at all times.
I imagine that has also helped to create its community, the idea that Cicatriz is a place that does not change too much, where you always know what to expect ...
Yes, I think our inspiration is these types of neighborhood cafes in Paris or New York that serve incredible food with very beautiful ingredients, where it is not about having the most innovative dish, which requires a lot of work and is difficult to maintain a consistency of quality and flavor. This is an excellent egg, a good piece of bread or some delicious roasted vegetables. And there aren't many places that just try to do that yet. It is difficult to carry out and it is not the most profitable thing in the world, but it is consistent and I think that, thanks to that, we create a community of people who enjoy that specifically.
Almost a year ago the pandemic began in Mexico. Many restaurants have struggled and surely you are no exception, but in many ways I know that you have been able to overcome the challenges and difficulties that have arisen. What are you telling me about this last year for Scar?
To be honest, it has been extremely difficult. Very difficult, but I think that as we have maintained this consistency in terms of our concept and our clientele, we have been able to move forward. First, we ran a large donation drive, and our clients were very kind to support us. That helped us a lot, and also those who buy our grocery products, for example. Still, to be honest, in January we were seeing ourselves in the dark, facing a tough situation with very difficult conversations, but now that some restrictions have been removed, we are breathing again. As soon as we started setting up tables outside, they were full. Thanks to our community, all we really need is for the restrictions to end, and people will come.
And your work team?
We are happy to say that we have supported our entire work team this year, sometimes earning more, sometimes less, but always at least the base salary we set. All of our staff have counted on at least that throughout the pandemic, because they are essential to us. Other restaurants could not do the same, and it is understandable, since these are unprecedented times, but for us it is a relief to have reached this moment with our entire family together. Now that we reopen, it's nice to know that any of our clients' favorite waiter or waitress will still be there, not someone new who doesn't know the wave well. That contributes to Scar's overall vibe; It is not just the restaurant, it is the place and the customers and the staff, all together.