By Chris Jay
Published Sept. 25, 2023
Soft-spoken and humble, with a youthful face that belies his twenty-five-year career in restaurant kitchens, Gabriel Balderas is the 42-year-old chef and co-owner of two of Shreveport’s most popular restaurants. With his wife and business partner, Brooke, Gabriel opened El Cabo Verde, a modern Mexican cantina with a locavore-friendly menu, in 2016. Building upon the success of El Cabo Verde, the duo launched a sustainable seafood restaurant, Zuzul Coastal Cuisine, in 2019. Both restaurants celebrate locally-sourced ingredients while challenging guests’ perceptions of Mexican cuisine. This past summer, the Balderases announced the establishment of Nourishing Farms, their own seven-acre farmstead, which started providing organic, heirloom fruits and vegetables to both restaurants in May.
“Today we harvested corn, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons,” Gabriel said during an interview in mid-July. “The things that we harvest at the farm are being incorporated immediately into our menu. It’s amazing, the flavor and the freshness we’re getting.”
[El Cabo Verde was included in our 2017 Food Tour of Shreveport, written by now-Arts & Entertainment Editor Alexandra Kennon. Read about other great food spots in Shreveport.]
At El Cabo Verde, Gabriel’s healthier versions of popular Mexican staples have attracted an enthusiastic following. Dishes like sweet potato enchiladas—regional sweet potatoes wrapped in heirloom corn tortillas and topped with tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, and fresh crema—deliver the carnal pleasures of Mexican food without using processed ingredients. Shrimp tacos combine the sweetness of fresh Gulf shrimp, the piquancy of chipotle aioli, and the cooling creaminess of avocado. At its best, Gabriel’s food is like this: accessible, nutritious, and so delicious that guests don’t realize they’ve eaten a healthy meal until the plates have been cleared. Gabriel is especially proud of El Cabo Verde’s excellent mole negro Oaxaqueno, a dish inspired by his childhood home of Oaxaca, Mexico.
“The concept of El Cabo Verde is a Mexican concept, but our mole is specifically a tribute to Oaxaca, where there are hundreds of different moles,” he said. “We make our mole negro the way it’s made in Oaxaca, with tomatoes, tomatillos, plantains, and chocolate.”
Gabriel immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was sixteen years old and has worked in professional kitchens ever since. His journey as a professional cook included a life-changing stint at the acclaimed Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama, where Gabriel cooked alongside James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Hastings in the early 2000s. Hastings’s careful sourcing of ingredients from small, local farms made a lasting impression on the younger cook.
Birmingham was also where Gabriel met Brooke. When the newly married couple moved to Shreveport in 2008, Gabriel noticed that most farms in northwestern Louisiana grew commodity crops like soybeans and corn. Since that time, smaller local farms including Mahaffey Farms, Sample Farms, and Smith Family Farms have grown into major operations providing local, pasture-raised beef, pork, and chicken to farmers’ markets, restaurants, and grocers. Gabriel takes pride in the fact that his restaurants have helped local farmers to gain a foothold in the wholesale market and to grow.
“When we moved here, this part of the country didn’t have many farmers,” Gabriel said. “My goal is for Shreveport and North Louisiana to grow food for human consumption, not just for commodities. The reality is that we need more people growing food.”
Gabriel’s efforts to promote local farms attracted the attention of Slow Food USA, an organization founded in 2000 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions. He currently serves as a member of the committee that governs the Southeastern U.S. division of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance, a global network of more than 1,200 chefs. His activism related to food, as well as his role as the co-founder of a local nonprofit, NWLA RASA, have forced Gabriel to overcome shyness and accept his role as a public figure.
“Growing up in restaurant kitchens, I was always the one who wanted to stay back in the kitchen and not to talk to anybody,” Gabriel said. “Brooke was always the opposite. I’m more comfortable now, but it took a lot of years for me to reach this point.”
Where El Cabo Verde spotlights local farms and the hard work of small farmers, Zuzul Coastal Cuisine seeks to do the same for small and endangered fisheries. Gabriel’s Mexican heritage peeks through in a few places on the Zuzul menu—the beautifully plated, chorizo-stuffed grilled octopus, for example, or the yellowfin tuna tostada—but much of the menu depends upon the seasonal availability of high-quality seafood, which can change from one day to the next. A last-minute phone call from a purveyor with a fresh haul of fatty crabs or great-looking sockeye salmon could send Gabriel and his team scrambling to redesign the evening’s specials.
[Read this story about another restaurant, in Lafayette, that is going the extra mile to utilize local farms’ produce: Scratch Kitchen.]
In addition to the impromptu nature of the menu, Zuzul differs from El Cabo Verde in its emphasis on craft cocktails. Star bartender Paul Loggins, who has overseen Zuzul’s bar program since opening, has made the tiny, five-seat bar at Zuzul one of the most enjoyable places to dine in North Louisiana. Loggins seems to have accepted the Balderases’ enthusiasm for local ingredients as a personal challenge to concoct surprising and delicious libations using the same seasonal approach that drives the food menu.
El Cabo Verde and Zuzul have a “yin and yang” quality. They are clearly distinct concepts, but there is something very two-sides-of-the-same-coin about the Balderas restaurants. Brooke, who designed the striking interiors in each of them, aptly summarized how the two restaurants function as halves of a whole.
“We wanted Zuzul to feel light and airy,” she said. “To me, El Cabo Verde represents the land, the earth, the farm, and Zuzul represents the sea, the air, the water.”
In a way, El Cabo Verde and Zuzul Cuisine reflect the personalities of Gabriel and Brooke—individuals with different strengths who lift up one another, their community of purveyors, their employees, and their patrons.