In the beginning of the business venture, all the family members which included Marco Zapien’s parents and two brothers, were involved in the day-to-day business. Although, each of the siblings had their own separate career paths, Marco Zapien was the one who was more interested in the culinary arts.
Marco Zapien attended the Los Angeles Culinary Institute and graduated with honors in 1997. Soon after his graduation, he began his culinary career at a restaurant just up the corner, the Dal Rae. Later in his career, Zapien followed as a chef in the sports and entertainment industry. He became the sous chef at Edison International Field of Anaheim, now Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
Building a solid culinary reputation in the Sports and Entertainment Industry, he soon worked for professional sports teams throughout the country including The Portland Trailblazers, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Saint Louis Rams, the Oakland Raiders, the Oakland Athletics, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. During his career in professional sports, Zapien was present for two Laker Championships, the Angels World Championship, and the Anaheim Ducks run for the Stanley Cup. Zapien would leave his Executive Chef post at the Arrowhead Pond in 2003 to partner up with his father at the Salsa Grill.
The Salsa Grill is a special place, a labor of love for all those involved. Zapien takes extra special care of all his customers, as does the staff. When you walk through the door of Salsa Grill, you are immediately taken back to a time when your own home smelled of home cooking as your parents toiled in the kitchen cooking secret family recipes. In fact, it’s the family recipes that are behind some of the most delicious dishes offered at the Salsa Grill. The menu is inspired by tradition, recipes that were handed down by Zapien's parents and grandparents. It’s about Marco Zapien and the staff who bring traditional recipes from their respective homes and backgrounds. Recipes that are like no other, and are unique to any one family. While ingredients may be identical, it’s the way it is prepared, and perhaps the measurements and care that goes into the preparation.
Dishes at Salsa Grill are prepared with fresh ingredients and more importantly from scratch. According to Zapien, that is what sets them apart from the other restaurants. Everything is made in house, from the tortilla chips, to the dressings, it's all is made carefully by the Salsa Grill staff. According to Zapien, he prides himself on making everything from scratch, creating that “homey” feel to the customers. Many customers have complimented Marco that it reminds them of their grandmother's or mother's cooking.
Just like any other restaurant, the menu is important to the success of any restaurant. Salsa Grill’s menu is unique and a testament to the steady clientele the restaurant serves on a daily basis. There are dishes in the menu that are traditional Mexican plates and are named after Zapien's good friends or regular visitors, including “The Eddie Blanco Special,” “the Jack Thomas Omelet,” or for lunch, you may find a “Dionicio Morales’ Favorite,” or “Lizette’s Grilled Chicken and Vegetable Salad.” It’s the benefit of being the owner and Executive Chef.
Zapien commented on having fun with food trends and dishes for special occasions. During these nights, a specialty item will be available that is not normally offered such as Ribs or Roasted Chicken.
The most popular dishes are the weekend items, Menudo and Pozole. Zapien admitted that he sees an influx of customers on Sundays, especially after local church services. Zapien also sees many regular customers, some of which have been coming to the restaurant for decades. Because the Zapien family has been in Pico Rivera for such a long time, many customers are those the family grew up with. Many customers are former classmates and teachers of Zapien.
Being an Executive Chef and co-owner is not all about the cooking, “there’s tons of office work as well” quipped Zapien. It could be stressful, but according to Zapien, one of the greatest de-stressors is actually spending time in the kitchen. “My stress reliever is to get in the kitchen” said Zapien. “I’ll go in the kitchen and try and do something, create something that I have been thinking about in my head… that’s how I work it out.” Cooking is such a passion for Zapien that he often comes up with ideas in the middle of the night or on his way home and immediately writes it down or sends himself an email to remind him to try it out.
The support of the community is astounding. As much as the community has supported Salsa Grill, Salsa Grill has supported the community by sponsoring youth sports teams in the area, participating in charitable causes organized by local churches, bi-annual sponsorship of the El Rancho High School Golf Program, and donates to local schools, clubs and organizations.
Salsa Grill has been a family owned staple in the City for 23 years. Zapien added that there are talks about opening a second location however, right now nothing is concrete. Zapien also added that the current location isn't going anywhere. “I'm definitely keeping this location,” said Zapien, “because it’s been so good to us and the community has supported us for so long. It’s where we will always be.”