Justa, a petit woman, sits in the booth next to her daughter Estrella, for whom this cool joint is named. “My mother is really brave,” Estrella says when asked how her mom became a restaurant owner. “It’s admirable, she just threw herself into it.”
Justa had worked in restaurants before, but says she is “not really a cook lady.” Opening Estrella’s was a big risk and a great challenge. “When I started, I cried all the time,” Justa says. “It’s hard when you first open and there are no customers and the bills are coming in.” Now, Estrella’s is gaining popularity and has a regular breakfast and weekend crowd.
Justa offers an eclectic diner menu with Mexican specialties and ingredients from the village where she grew up. “The Oaxacan cheese comes from my hometown and we use it for the quesadillas, Steak Tapatio, and Steak Azteca,” Justa tells me. The mole also comes from Mexico and has a long and complicated list of ingredients. “That is a lot of work to make, I can tell you,” Justa says. Oaxaca is famous for it’s cuisine, especially the rich complex mole sauce. Justa makes the green sauce, a mix of tomatillos, jalapeños, and garlic in house.
As I speak to Estrella and Justa they slip away to pour a cup of coffee or take an order and chat with patrons about what is going in their lives. “The thing that surprises me so much is the customers,” Estrella says. “You talk to them. They give you advice. There is something special in being with them. You gain another family.” Estrella and her younger brother Axel both work in the restaurant on the weekends. Justa works every day from 7am to 4pm. The business is a big commitment but Justa is happy to be working for herself.
“An old friend offered to sell me this place. I saw the opportunity and I took it,” Justa says. “I got tired of working for other people—you never end up with anything for yourself.”
Justa grew up quite poor in a village in Oaxaca. Her father worked tirelessly, raising farm animals. When Justa was 2 years old, her father became ill. One day, the animals walked home by themselves from the pasture and her father was found dead. Her mother died two years later, from illness as well. In their village, medical care was nonexistent and sickness could be deadly. Justa and her brother were raised by an aunt and uncle who had 12 other children.
“Was a hard life,” Justa says. But she attributes her strength and confidence to her upbringing. “I always like to do hard things. I’m not scared to do anything.” When she was 20, Justa had the chance to come to America. She worked in cleaning and food service and saved enough money to start her own business.
“My mom and I are opposites,” Estrella says. “She was always so independent, strong, and confident. I get shy sometimes.” Still, Estrella takes risks too. She is making what she calls her “first leap,” entering the field of art even though being a lawyer or nurse might be more practical. “My mom always tells me ‘Do what you want and be happy and healthy.'”
Estrella’s, with it’s tasty food and warm welcoming atmosphere, nurtures that happy and healthy vibe. Local artist Juan Molina’s vibrant paintings adorn the walls. Writing students and new authors stop in on lunch breaks from workshops at the co-working center upstairs. People from nearby businesses meet for breakfast and lunch dates. And more new customers are finding the cafe every day.
Estrella’s was established in December of 2013 and Justa promises that it will be “open for as long as people want to eat here.”