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Family Album / The Prados

Table for 31, Please

A Southland chef and his relatives have created a dining legacy.

May 16, 1999

"Everyone will make [a dish] a little bit different. It's your touch. You make it your own."

--Javier Prado, age 45

*

Like most Saturday nights for about as long as he can remember, 22-year-old Javier Anaya--in crisply pressed suit, silk dress shirt open at the collar--is dressed for the party.

The party of 14--late, but on the way. The party of four who thought they might be able to stop in for a quick dinner on the way to the theater, being "regulars and all." And part of a party of 12, the rest not due for another half hour or so. "Oh, we'll just wait at the table. . . ."

Javi knows this isn't possible, that the 85-seat restaurant he manages, the Original Cha Cha Cha on Virgil Avenue, already is bursting at the seams, like a house party that's just getting warmed up and already is spilling out onto the sidewalk.

But he doesn't say no. Instead it's: "Let me see what we can do." He rolls up his sleeves--carefully, mind you--to reconfigure the floor plan. A little nip and tuck. . .

A few traffic lights west along Melrose Avenue, then south to Beverly Boulevard, Javi's older brother Miguel is installed behind the host stand at Cava, his serious face lit by the glow illuminating the reservation log. Miguel and Javi's cousins Joey and Alberto Prado (who is better known as Stretch) keep order in Cava's trio of baroque and bustling dining rooms. Stretch is running the supper-club action upstairs. Joey tends bar, offering up blushing Cosmopolitans and Cava's newest concoction, a Cointreau/Chambord combo called the Latin Lover, with a smile equal parts shy and impish. . .

Start with a pungent pinch of garlic, the six-eight beat of congas and timbales, cut the heat with the sweetness of passion fruit, mix in walls the shade of scotch bonnets and garnish it all with outlandish tall tales. And you have but a drop of the family secret.

In a city infamous for its short attention span, Cha Cha Cha and Cava--flagships of L.A.'s Latin/Caribbean cuisine--appear indefatigable. But the same may not be true for their head chef and master mind, Toribio Prado, the family filament, who at 36 is feeling a bit crisp around the edges and in need of room to wander (if only for a little while).

So he's taking a break from the daily routine and reveling in his newfound spare time (he just got back from New York, where he prepared dinner for the prestigious James Beard Foundation). Happily--miraculously, his family and business partners agree--his decision coincides with a crucial development: that several of his nephews all have come of age.

Having grown up working for their uncle for pocket change, gas money, car payments and college tuition, they've now taken keen interest in the family business--number crunching, scheduling headaches, long hours and all.

"We realized," says Stretch, "that we had to act upon what we had always talked about. About having something together."

Through a carousel of business partners and personal and professional setbacks, family--Toribio's 13 brothers and sisters (Javier, Jose-Luis, Guadalupe, Josefina, Masedonio, Raphael, Chui, Martin, Ophelia, Grasiela, Luz, Teresa, Maria) and their scores of children and grandkids--has been not just their safety net but their recipe for success.

*

"You can't just read recipes," says Miguel. "You have to understand the flavor. Some people just naturally have a palate for flavor. And when the food is flowing, it's like music. That's what it is when you go to cook at any of our houses. It's the food singing--honestly. That was the God-given talent to the family, to understand food."

Like recipes, family histories are seldom written. They are handed down. Told before bedtime. On long walks at odd hours. Around a noisy dinner table, lifted glasses in hand.

And like recipes, these histories are subject to the tricks of memory, extrapolation and interpretation. Where memory fades, invention takes over to power the tale. Count up all the descendants, in-laws, etc., of Rafaela and Toribio Prado Sr., who followed their children here from Michoacan, Mexico, in 1989, and you'll hear more than 100 voices. Like that of any family in any city, theirs is a history studded with titillating episodes, a telenovela of family feuds, eccentric uncles, prodigal sons, jealousies, love won and lost.

As common lore has it, it all started in 1986 with a squat afterthought of a space at Virgil and Melrose avenues. The brainstorm of Mario Tamayo, a self-styled impresario who sought out Toribio Jr. to be the restaurant's secret ingredient, Cha Cha Cha seemed to push itself up suddenly on the edge of east Hollywood out of a lot full of crushed Tecate cans, broken Coke bottles and wild weeds.

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