As Mandy Estrella surveys the Tower Grove South space that will become the brick-and-mortar home of her Caribbean restaurant Plantain Girl (www.plantaingirl.com; 314-578-8789), she can't help but feel like she's come full circle.
"The first job I ever had was in a bingo hall kitchen when I was fifteen," Estrella recalls. "I remember thinking it was really cool that the woman who ran the kitchen got to have fun with this random concession stand and make a business out of it. Now, here I am."Estrella is not working in a literal bingo hall these days — the new location of Plantain Girl is being built inside the forthcoming Alpha Brewing Company, on Morganford Road — but the sentiment is the same. For the last two years, the chef and veteran front-of-house maven has been running her small catering and pop-up company as a one-woman show anywhere that will have her. From catering gigs to pop-ups inside local breweries and restaurants, Estrella has been hustling to fill the void of Caribbean food in the city's food scene.
Though she is now nicknamed the "Plantain Girl," Estrella's position as one of the city's premier cooks of Caribbean cuisine is an unlikely one. A St. Louis native, Estrella fell in love with the restaurant industry while working banquets and pursued her passion by attending culinary school at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.
However, after moving to Orlando, Estrella quickly realized that working in the front of the house was the best way to make money in the business. Though she dabbled in management, she spent most of her career serving and bartending at a variety of restaurants in Orlando, including ones in Universal Studios in Florida.
While in Orlando, Estrella met her now-ex-husband, a Dominican man who introduced her to his native country's food culture. As they went out to authentic restaurants and cooked together with his family, she realized what she'd been missing.
"In Florida, there are the chain Caribbean restaurants and the authentic ones," Estrella explains. "The first time I ever had a plantain was at a chain one. I thought it was great, but when I went to the authentic places, I was like, 'Wow, this is absolutely fantastic.'"
Estrella got more and more into Caribbean cooking, a passion that continued even after she moved back to St. Louis from Florida. As she settled back into the Midwest, she couldn't help but notice that the lack of authentic Caribbean food, even though she was certain there was demand for it. Then it came to her: She could help to fill that void.
Estrella did not have the funding or even the desire to do a full-scale restaurant, but she saw the boom of food trucks, pop-ups and counters and knew that could be her niche. At first, she began with catering, making a name for herself that led to a Caribbean concept inside the Crafty Chameleon and pop-ups at Six Mile Bridge brewery.
A few months ago, Estrella was approached by the owners of Alpha Brewing Company about running the food service inside of their soon-to-open south city brewery. Expanding from a much smaller setup downtown, the Alpha team knew they wanted to offer food at their new tasting room, but they did not want to do the cooking. They figured the flavors in Estrella's cooking would pair nicely with their beers, so they asked if she'd like to operate Plantain Girl out of their kitchen. She didn't hesitate.
"It's a huge opportunity for someone to provide a dining room for you," Estella says. "The Alpha audience is people who are more adventurous and willing to try new foods, so it's the right fit."
Estrella describes the new Plantain Girl setup as being like a food truck, only not moving. There will be a small kitchen and a window where patrons can come up and order food, something she refers to as the "Alphateria."
"It's a window and a counter, and people who are already there can come up and get food — just like the bingo hall," says Estrella. "I've come full circle."
Estrella took a break from the kitchen buildout to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, stopping time and why her calm facade actually takes a lot of work.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I appear calm under stress, but internally I am obsessing about small details when executing an event. Staying focused and having a solid plan have been my key to success.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee, all day.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love to freeze time. Twenty-four hours in a day sometimes is not enough.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
There are so many talented chefs and restauranteurs using collaborations to support each other and provide unique foods and experiences that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
For me, the answer is the same today as it was ten years ago when I moved back from Florida. We have so many fantastic ethnic dining options, yet almost no one bringing the food culture of the Caribbean/South Florida to St. Louis.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
The Tamale Man for sure!
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Ben Welch. I’m excited to see where he takes the Big Baby Q concept when he finds a new space and tweaks the menu to include his experiences from New Orleans and South Carolina.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Plantains. I compare the versatility and uses in their different states to my ability to jump back and forth between many roles within my own business and personal life.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I’d be getting a lot more sleep.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Any animal’s feet. I’m sure they are delicious, but I just can’t cook something's foot.
What is your after-work hangout?
My house. I have two sons and they monopolize the majority of my free time.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Gravy, on top of anything.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Giordano’s Deep Dish Pizza and a Pepsi.
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