La doble vida
de Cris Herrera

Words by Marcel Reyes

Photos by Arash Afshar

In the year 2000, Cris Herrera began DJing. Five years of early gigs helped him develop his style, and then things took off. Cris began to play Doc Martin’s shows, hand-picked by the famed selector. He created and curated Lifted for 11 years. Soul On Beat, his project in tandem with Siesta Records, celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. He’s well-known for the Sunday house music party Souleil, which started almost a decade ago at Lei Lounge, moved into what was then Bourbon Street next door, then onto Gossip Grill and Rich’s, continuing to travel venues throughout San Diego. Souleil was a special party, it originated as a “boy’s party” from Cris’ recognition of the LGBT community and their relationship with house and techno, and now is a pan-sexual dancefloor welcoming all. He’s played around the world from Mexico to Mallorca, and teamed up with San Diego’s most prolific and sustainable event crews to bring to life the West Coast Weekender music conference. Cris has most certainly made his mark on the music scene.. 

With such a respected, near-two decade DJ career, it surprises some that when asked what he does for a living, Cris responds he’s in the restaurant business.

REWIND. For only a bit longer than his DJ work, and happening right alongside it, Cris and his family have owned El Comal, over 20 years in operation, it currently resides in North Park. Taking over for a Cuban restaurant that was there before, that reputedly already brought much flavor and culture to the space, El Comal has become its own cultural staple. Painted in warm buttery ochres and terracotta reds, you are greeted with splashes of cobalt blue on the tables complemented with a gleaming wood bar offering full spirit libations. The sizable patio is hung with paintings portraying Mexican culture: agave, corn, madres making tortillas.

Nestled under the shade of palms and trees a few feet from the corner of Illinois and University Ave., El Comal is lauded by local foodies and industry neighbors, like the cooks at Urbn. Jet-setters drop in, having read the menu online, to feast on meals they haven’t tasted since travels to small towns in southern Mexico.

“My mom was a chemist, and a serial entrepreneur,” Cris explains with a grin, knowing obviously that the manzana didn’t fall far from the árbol. We are sitting in his beautiful apartment across the street from house and techno venue Spin.

The restaurant specifically stemmed from his mother’s experience running a cafeteria, and his father being a hotel chef of four star properties. “Mom was very forward-thinking. She wanted to offer traditional foods from many areas in Mexico, especially the South where my family comes from. She wanted street food from Mexico city, barbacoa from the North, which we serve as goat. My dad dialed in the menu.”

It’s quite a menu. The Southern region of Mexico has a certain flavor profile. The tamales from this region are made in banana leaf rather than corn husk. The conchinita pibil is a Mayan pork dish with a marinade of vinegary achiote and bay leaf (very similar to another Spanish colonial fusion dish from South East Asia, the Filipino dish called “adobo”). As good as tacos and carne asada fries are, El Comal offers a vivid and genuine representation of Mexican cuisine from the homeland

“My parents led by example, that hard work pays off,” Cris says. “My brother is a chef now. He plays with the menu specials. The spicy octopus taco. The smoked marlin taco, which was in such high demand that it made it to our daily menu. We work hard to bring together quality ingredients in balance to create special flavor. For me, there are a lot of parallels with DJing – making a mix, understanding the ingredients and all their potential, and ultimately putting them together to act as one experience. I get really into it. In El Comal, if the food is good, they come back. For the events I’m involved with, if the music, production décor, and vibe are good, they become loyal to the party right away.”

There are other parallels between El Comal and Cris’ DJ career. In both, there is a recognition that accepting work brings opportunity, and Cris is never one to turn down work if he can help it. “My friends are always worried about me,” he laughs, “but in the end it’s always worth it and it leads to more doors opening, every time.”

The underground house and techno scene has, of course, gravitated towards the restaurant. On any given weekend day at El Comal, you can find a roster of local DJ’s and promoters hanging out, drinking cocktails, and discussing the season ahead, recent parties, and music. It is a veritable salon of music minds. “We sell event tickets here. For the things I am doing, El Comal is a hub. The community has been very supportive. It’s been fun doing pop-ups, like our booth at West Coast Weekender. We enjoy feeding the scene, with the food we stand by and believe in,” he says slowly and thoughtfully. Cris Herrera always speaks genuinely. He means it.

The future of the underground music scene is not unlike the future of El Comal. To make any enterprise sustainable, Cris finds the advice for one is relevant to the other: “Start at a good scale so that the growth is organic. Trends and people come and go. You always have to stay ahead of the curve. You can’t get too narrow-minded and too comfortable. New people are always coming in to the music scene, friends are getting older and drift away from the parties. In the food scene, tons of places keep opening up, and new technologies are always advancing the game.

“The question is the same for both: How can we get our product out there? Whether it’s a small business restaurant or a boutique festival – you have to be creative. You need reliable people around you. You need them to share their ideas, and together as a team you learn and improve. You shouldn’t try to limit people to doing one thing. Because I don’t do one thing.”

Cris Herrera catches a chime from his iPhone, and he checks to see what he’s missed over the couple of hours we’ve been shooting the shit. His screen is a barrage of texts, restaurant-related queries from his employees and family, and ongoing threads with DJ’s and event-makers from his various projects. He grins, then starts diving into each text giving his opinions, orders, and mediation. He looks stoked. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s doing it all.