Faces of Kingston: Isaac Cruz

Isaac Cruz (photo by Morgan Y. Evans)

This week for Faces of Kingston we are going to talk to someone I always see out really participating in the Kingston community. Whether telling stories about Kingston, dreaming up delicious menu items or making new friends, Diego’s Taqueria co-owner Isaac Cruz plays a big role in making our area a better place. 

Morgan Y. Evans: As a known big Grateful Dead fan would you like to say anything about the passing of Robert Hunter? 

Isaac Cruz: An amazing songwriter. I just read a great post someone put out that he had written four of the most important Grateful Dead songs in one day. We were all affected by his passing. For me as a Dead fan, it has always been a community that brings people from all walks of life together to celebrate freedom and get away from their daily grind. Then you can come back and feel like you are in a place where you can be better for your co-workers, family, community. That’s what it’s about.

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I like that you used the word community as that is also what this column is about. Can you summarize your history with the area? 

It’s wild. My mother had come to live with my aunt in Hunter so I spent some time there between five and seven. I didn’t stay long. I came back here again in 1997 because a girl I was seeing was transferring to [SUNY] New Paltz. It was right as I got out of the Marine Corps. I had a friend who worked at the college. They were looking for a chef. That’s what I had done my last year in the Marine Corps, so I applied. I had to borrow shoes from him ’cause I was wearing flip-flops. I had spent years in Hawaii before that. I got the job the first day. Over 20 years later, I’m a common-law local. It’s an area where it is not all one or the other, Democrat, Republican or whatever. As long as you are open minded and kind you can prosper here. It’s growing fast right now and it is a little scary where it is going, but people have probably been saying that about all of us when we came here. 

How many years has Diego’s been here now? What’s been the best part of it? 

Five and a half years in. It was at a time when Kingston wasn’t what it is right now. I ran a place in New Paltz that had a similar vibe. I was aware of the process when it comes to this kind of fare. Me and my wife had also worked at Mohonk. I had 10 years and she had nine years. We tried to go corporate and it wasn’t working. We took everything we had and just jumped all in. I came here multiple times to ask how they were doing and if they were willing to sell. They weren’t too receptive at first, which I get. I am a pretty up-front person. Six months of that they gave me a number though and … we’ve talked about community, I had gone to Pugsly the local barber. I wasn’t getting anywhere but I knew he knew the owners and so I asked if he could set up a sit-down meeting and vouch for me. If you aren’t shy and are old school and willing to talk to people you may have better results. You ought to earn it, not just show up somewhere and say, “This is what I am doing.” 

Jump to your tune. 

I love now being a part of something I have helped grow as much as I could. Whether it is Stockade or Boitson’s or Duo or Sissy’s, the core of what was here before there were one hundred Airbnb’s and zipcars on the weekends. No disrespect! That pays our student loans but it’s wild, to put it softly (laughing). We live in a capitalistic country. That made me what I am, but is it allowing the next generation to come up and build in their community? I’m scared we might get into an area where people can’t afford the American Dream with other people buying everything up to monopolize. I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I hope it stays feasible. We are so driven by not making waves with local politicians keeping their portfolio looking great and it’s obviously better here than 10 years ago, but…

Who did it? (laughing)

Exactly. And who is getting pushed out? Places that’ve been here five generations. I’m not on a pulpit. How much in tax breaks and how much are people really doing for the community versus just being here on the weekends and having a place for their friends and people to go to when it is time? What do I know? I sell tacos for a living. 

What did you want to offer to make Diego’s a unique place? 

We knew there is always this big thing about authentic fare. Authentic. “That’s not real tacos, pizza, etc.” If we go by that, I guess nothing is real. Real pizza is not what we eat here. Real Chinese food is different. We decided to use tacos as the medium to put whatever we found enjoyable that other people would like. Subs and pizza are everything. Who thought pineapple and ham would be popular? You see it all the time in reviews. “They are really good but not authentic.” OK. I’m glad you say we’re really good. We have local ingredients and vegetarian options, good drinks. Vegan crema. Hemp seed. I don’t think you should always make something like tofu substitute for meat. Let the vegetable do the job. To bring back to local, the “three sisters” was the local Native American food grown in the area. The corn, squash and beans. They would grow the mound up instead of destroying the earth and then rotate their fields. So it wasn’t harming. When we knew we were going to open in such a historic area …

That sounds authentic (laughing)

(laughing) That’s as authentic as it gets. Very true.

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