Rendering of the future Cielo Rojo space in Takoma Park Credit: Courtesy of Cielo Rojo

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The founders of Cielo Rojo are planning a two-pronged expansion. The popular Takoma Park Mexican restaurant will move into a larger building a short distance down Carroll Avenue to make way for a fast-casual burrito shop to open at Cielo Rojo’s previous address.

“We wanted to stay in Takoma Park because the people here are very loyal,” says Carolina McCandless, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, chef David Perez. “They have been so good to us, especially during the pandemic.”

While McCandless is originally from Takoma Park and Perez grew up in Mexico City, the pair met working at famed San Francisco vegan Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre. Their new venture, San Pancho Burritos, is an homage to the time they spent living in the city. Pancho is a nickname for Francisco. 

San Francisco’s Mission District is renowned for its aluminum foil-wrapped, well-stuffed burritos packed with pinto beans and rice, along with meat, veggies, and toppings. Like at Cielo Rojo, the restaurant will offer vegan and vegetarian options. 

Perez is still developing the menu, but expect rotating guisados (meaty stews) as a burrito filling option, plus tortas, burrito bowls, salads, and dessert like chocoflan (chocolate cake with flan on top). Beverage options will include frozen margaritas, Mexican beer, agua frescas, and Mexican Coke. San Pancho will likely be open Tuesdays through Sundays for lunch and dinner, though they may open early to sell breakfast burritos if there’s demand. 

Photo of Chef David Perez courtesy of Cielo Rojo

The space (7056 Carroll Ave.) will have a fresh look with different tables, a mural, and photographs on the walls, potentially capturing San Francisco’s lowrider car culture. Customers will order at the counter, with the option to sit indoors or outdoors. 

Meanwhile, Cielo Rojo is moving down the street to the 3,500-square-foot Healey Surgeons space (7211 Carroll Ave.) alongside the town’s fire station. With the help of DesignCase—which oversaw the design of Maydan and Immigrant Food—the new location will feature 120 seats inside and another 30 seats on the patio, an open kitchen, 16-seat bar, and private dining room for 20-30 diners. 

The aesthetic will stay “minimalist and Mexican,” according to McCandless. She’s once again counting on her father’s professional carpenter background. Jeffrey McCandless made the tables and bar at the original Cielo Rojo and will craft benches and the host stand for the new one.

Look forward to a larger menu, including some new refined dishes alongside current favorites, at the second incarnation of Cielo Rojo. Right now, the restaurant only serves tequila and mezcal, but the new bar will be stocked with a full array of spirits. “I think it’ll be more of a place people want to go on special occasions,” McCandless predicts.

The couple decided to move to overcome Cielo Rojo’s biggest challenges. “The two major complaints on Yelp are that we’re small or that they came here and couldn’t get a table,” McCandless says. “And the current kitchen is too small and not built well for a full-service restaurant.”

On top of servicing diners, the expanded kitchen will allow Cielo Rojo to keep up with their explosive demand for takeout. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, to-go food accounted for roughly 5 percent of Cielo Rojo’s sales. In 2020, takeout accounted for nearly 80 percent of sales and roughly 65 percent in 2021. 

McCandless and Perez hope to start construction on the new Cielo Rojo space in April or May to prepare for a late summer or fall opening. San Pancho will probably open a month or two earlier, which will likely mean Cielo Rojo will be closed for a transition period. 

“We just can’t open two restaurants at once,” McCandless says, adding that the timeline remains a moving target due to anticipated pandemic-related delays, including sourcing building materials, obtaining restaurant equipment, and hiring employees. 

On top of these two projects, McCandless hasn’t ruled out opening another location of Cielo Rojo in D.C. 

San Pancho Burritos, 7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park; sanpanchoburritos.com

(New) Cielo Rojo, 7211 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park; cielo-rojo.com