Esteban Castro, 35, runs one of the more interesting pop-ups in town. It's called "Esto's Garage," and it starts up around 8 or 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights at Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy. Castro is a self-taught chef, and the food is influenced by the food of his late mother, whose heritage he calls "part-Mexican, part-Heinz 57." But the food isn't necessarily what caught our ear right away. What did was the way his customers order: They sit down, look over a menu, and send him a text message. But Castro didn't do it to be technologically hip. We caught up with him the other day to hear what the story was.
Metro Times: Ordering by text message, huh? How did this all start?
Esteban Castro: I'm not, like, a technology-guru-wizard or anything like that, but I do see that sometimes it has a purpose. It was kind of by happenstance. I started this pop-up a couple years ago, but it finally found a home at Café d'Mongos about a year ago, and I was really interested in having someone help me serve as I cooked — if it got busy enough I could put someone in there to help me run things around. And no one ever really showed up for me. I got kind of good at serving for myself and talking to people and telling a story, so I decided to just go directly from my phone in the form of texting. So the first night last year, when the person called in and said they couldn't make it, I ran out and grabbed the menus from everybody and put my phone number on them — and that's a big risk because now I'm giving the world my phone number. I'm ready for prank calls, taking a chance there, you know? I didn't have another option, but I put that out there and — lo and behold — the first night people started shooting me a text and I'll come to the table and they'll ask me, "Where did you come from?" And I'm like, "I'm here in the building." And people are like, "Why are you using the phone?" And I say, "I don't want to bug you, if you want it, it's here on the table. Just text me and we'll make it happen." Or I'll send them a picture of the menu or send them a picture of the food, and it's a lot of fun, because you end up interacting with them and you meet them before you go out there and meet them in person. So it's been going pretty well. Hell, I have a 1 percent prank rate. It's pretty good.
MT: Some might say it's a little impersonal.
Castro: Well, it is until I come to the table and then they find out who I am and we deal with each other and then, yeah, it warms up really quickly. You're right, it's a cold start, because people are intrigued. A lot of times, people are sitting there and they see the menu, no one else is paying attention and they just try it, they dial a guac to their table and I'll show up and I'll have guacamole and only one person will know. Everyone's like, "I didn't want this," and the one person puts their hand up and everyone will just think they're, like, the hero for the moment. Like, "Oh, you ordered some food up!" Boy, when people get to do that they'll like give me a wink and I'll know that that's what they're doing.
MT: So this is all in lieu of a waiter?
Castro: Yeah, what do you call it? "Necessity is the mother of invention"? And it really is, and accidentally trying something, when it works, everyone thinks it's genius, but most things that innovate usually are an accident or just by dumb luck. Now it's growing a little bit and people are feeling more comfortable with it and it's just a novel thing and it does work.
MT: How does this work, then? You're switching between cooking and texting? How do you keep your hands free to cook?
Castro: You've gotta be ready with a pad and paper: I actually ended up where I just transfer said items to paper. The first menu was really handwritten and people had to type all this stuff up and they were drunk and it was really bad. I had a stroke of genius at a Chinese restaurant on Vernier, in the neighborhood: I'm always making fun of the numbers, like, "I would like a number 175 with two 340s." But I saw how with five items, the Chinese menu's number format would work for me. Everything's numbered and people love that whole "four number ones, two number threes with pork" and it's really coming together. I just transfer it all to paper then work from that menu, or work from that list I create. It's a little bit of a pain, but once they find out there's one person doing all of this and doing the payments too, they really get into it and watch as if it's a marathon or something. It's not like the first part of the marathon, where everyone's healthy, but it's like that last part, where the runners are crawling. They love to watch you suffer. It's awesome.
MT: What's the food like?
Castro: I guess I call it "Southwest Detroit cuisine," meaning that there's an element of Mexican food to this, definitely, but there's also the, you know, the deep Southern and Appalachian menu of my mother, basically everything is like what my mother cooked. She's passed since, like, 25 years ago, but I'm kind of keeping her alive with the food, you know because, when that smell is created in my house or in the place, or wherever I do this, it kind of brings back memories. So I serve black beans in rice with like roasted red peppers in there and lots of garlic and onions and some cilantro. The way I grill burgers is the way my mom used to make them. I call them "personal meatloaf," like everyone gets a little meatloaf when they get this burger. The guacamole is something she didn't make, but I just definitely love that fresh Mexican. I'll do stuffed peppers sometimes, or stuff like a pierogi quesadilla. I'll just try things, and that's what my mom did. She could make anybody's food and then they'd try it and say, "You make it better than I do!" That was always her goal in life to try new things and experience it. That's really thoughtful. I'm just kind of bringing her, keeping her alive with the food in a way.
To try Esto's Garage, bring cash and a phone to Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy, 1439 Griswold St., Detroit. Learn more at estosgarage.com.
Michael Jackman is managing editor of the Detroit Metro Times.