Inspiration can strike from anywhere. For Taqueria Cantina co-owner Daniel Ceballos, the inspiration to open a restaurant struck when he was 8 years old watching a telenovela. In the telenovela, there was a restaurant named El Paraiso — the paradise.
As he watched the show, he saw how happy everyone was at the restaurant. He fell in love with both the idea of experiencing that joy and creating it for others.
“I was very young, and I didn’t know they were all actors, so the encouragement was always in my heart to make it happen,” Daniel said. “I am 34 years old now. I dare to say that I see that joy in people’s faces when they come to my establishments.”
Ever since then, he learned all he could about cooking from his family. He worked in restaurants when he was young, determined to learn about the industry.
When Daniel was 9, he walked past many food trucks to get to school, one of which treated him like family. Daniel convinced the food truck to give him a job flipping tortillas. Around that time, he started to cook meals for his family.
By the time Daniel was 12, his reputation for creating food spread throughout his community. He remembered walking up to the local butcher and asking for a job because he wanted to learn how to work with proteins, but was turned away because he was too young.
After months of hanging out at the butcher, the owner eventually relented and allowed Daniel to wrap up the meat for the customers.
“From there, I would volunteer in local taquerias and learned more and more,” Daniel said. “Until I finally turned 15 and got a summer job working as a cook at this amazing taqueria that taught me most of what I know.”
Daniel considered the owners of that taqueria as his family. They taught him creative recipes and the foundation of how to build his own dishes.
“Around that time frame, my grandma passed away, and the memories of her cooking haunted me,” Daniel said. “So I knew for sure that my destiny was to one day open a restaurant.”
In 2016, a space opened up in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood a few blocks away from the Space Needle, and Daniel seized the opportunity. Along with his business partners and best friends, Brian Brandell and Salvador “Sal” Amezquita, he opened a restaurant with stunning views, natural light, laid back yet upscale vibes, and — most importantly — delicious and authentic Mexican food: Taqueria Cantina.
Taqueria Cantina has two locations: the original in Belltown and, as of March 2021, a new location in Seattle’s Downtown Core. Both locations offer authentic cuisine from Michoacán, Mexico.
“My restaurant is, more than anything, about the taste,” Daniel said. “From the simplest to the most elaborate dish I could possibly have on the menu.”
Many of the recipes come from Daniel’s mother who has been on board helping run Taqueria Cantina since day one. Daniel said her flavors differentiate the homemade meals served at his restaurant from mass-produced, commercial dishes.
“[My mother] will always be my strength,” Daniel said. “And she alone has made this process amazing because her touch is not just in my heart but also in every dish that comes out of the kitchen.”
In the years prior to opening, Daniel worked to create many of the recipes found at both Taqueria Cantina locations. He didn’t want to open a restaurant to make a dollar or two — he wanted to provide homemade meals for each of his customers.
“If you were to come to my house, this is how I would cook for you” Daniel said.
The passion and heart Daniel puts into his cooking is obvious. Cooking is more than just putting ingredients together to him. He strongly believes when people put their heart into something, somebody will notice.
“It’s not perfect, it’s just delicious,” he said.
The menu is full of options, ensuring there’s a dish for everyone to enjoy. They have protein selections from traditional carne asada to tofu al pastor. They also have all the tequila options a person could wish for, including a list of organic tequilas that make a perfect pairing for any meal.
Using high-quality ingredients and offering generous portions are also important to Daniel. With the rising costs of eating out, he wants Taqueria Cantina to be affordable and enjoyable. He wants each customer to know they got their money’s worth.
“The people make it worth it because, at the end of the day, my passion is cooking,” Daniel said. “I love to cook. I’ve been doing this for many, many years. And what makes that great experience is seeing people have that first bite.”
Beyond serving good meals, Daniel knows his attitude as an owner and the attitude of his staff can go a long way in making people feel welcome at Taqueria Cantina, especially people from marginalized communities.
“Through our attitudes. Through our character. Through how we present ourselves,” he said about supporting the Latinx community in Seattle. “And not just that, the humbleness of the way we cook, the humbleness of the way we present our meals, more on the authentic side versus commercial plates. We focus more on, ‘This is for you, we’ve built this for you and you will love it.’”
Daniel, along with his co-owners Brian and Sal, work to show a genuine humbleness and gratefulness to their community: the local community they credit for helping to make their dream a reality.
“It’s all about how you present yourself,” Daniel said. “The care and the love you show.”
When it comes to both staff and customers, Daniel said the most important thing to him is to show he cares for them in a genuine way .
Daniel, Brian, and Sal have also created a safe space for Seattle’s LGBTQ+ community at Taqueria Cantina. As a long-time fan of drag queens, Brian suggested they host drag brunches at the restaurant as a way to stand out. During the drag brunches, a number of drag queens perform songs and dances for Taqueria Cantina patrons as they enjoy cocktails and bar bites.
While there have been challenges and the owners have faced many negative comments due to their decision, Daniel said the brunches have become a beautiful thing and the brunches aren’t just a show anymore.
The drag shows are a way to continue to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community to feel comfortable being who they are and to have the freedom to be who they are without the worry of violence or discrimination.
“And this is not even just the LGBT community, but also just in the general public,” Daniel said. “Feeling safe to be who you are is very important. Why? Because that’s who you are and you shouldn’t be living in any other life but yours.”
When he opened Taqueria Cantina, Daniel wanted to create a space where everyone will always get treated with the respect they deserve — whether employee or customer. Years after a colorful restaurant caught his eye on television, Daniel created a paradise for himself and his community.