Faced with a new lease and unemployed workers, Ochoa hired his kitchen staff for construction.
By Esdras Ochoa as told to Andy Wang
Esdras Ochoa is a chef and taquero whose restaurants include Mexicali Taco & Co. and Salazar in Los Angeles, 11 Westside in Hong Kong, and Reunión 19 in Austin. He’s working toward opening a second outpost of Mexicali Taco in LA’s San Gabriel Valley.
Right now, it’s get up in the morning, and it’s a whole different ball game because my kids are away from school. So I’m a stay-at-home dad in the mornings, getting the kids set up for their online school.
As soon as I do that, I head over to the shop, Mexicali in Chinatown. I check on orders. Sometimes we have big orders, and other days are just average. I deliver the orders myself. We’re not really making money right now, but we’re alive, which is huge. It’s like when you go to a casino and you break even—it’s like a huge win. That’s kind of how I feel right now.
After I’m done with deliveries, I head to shop number two, the Mexicali I’m planning to open in San Gabriel soon. My partner Paul Yoo and I had the chance to walk away from this restaurant after the coronavirus hit, but we decided to move forward and keep our people employed.
These guys are my cooks and dishwashers, and now they’re doing construction. I go every day to check in. We’re getting the kitchen ready. We painted the restaurant inside. We waited for better weather to paint the outside.
We’re doing everything—the construction, sanding, painting, degreasing, working on the hood. I’m getting dirty myself with the rest of the guys. They’re very happy. They were very stressed about not having work. My manager was stressed that he was trimming hours. We’ve sent guys from our first restaurant to work in San Gabriel.
We’re providing masks for all the guys. We’ve been providing them with vitamin C. We make sure they have their meals. I bring them healthy food as much as I can. We don’t have a working kitchen there yet. We cut back to our skeleton crew. There’s plenty of gloves and hand sanitizer.
We had a budget for Mexicali number two. Instead of using that budget to pay painters and construction workers, we’re using our core crew from the kitchen to pull it off. We’re not really losing money on that end. I think we should be open for takeout and delivery in mid-to-late May. We’re following the same rules we have at the other shop. Six feet apart. We put marks on the floor.
The seller of the business, this Chinese couple who had a restaurant here, you could tell they were very stressed out because their business kind of didn’t work out. They were very happy they had found a buyer to take over their lease. Then the coronavirus hit, and we were second-guessing, and they were super scared.
A lot of our decision had to do with Paul and I, the way we work. We’re really old-school. We shake on it, and that’s kind of how we’ve done business since we met.
We gave our word. We had given the sellers a little deposit, but it wasn’t set in stone. It was a couple Gs, which is good money now. But at the moment, we thought it was either lose that two Gs, or there’s a big chance we might lose more. We could have just given them that money and walked away.
But no, man, it goes back to our beliefs. We gave them our word, and we can’t do this to our people either. Let’s tough it out. If we pulled back, we’re not going to do good for our employees and the sellers. That karma just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to sleep at night like that. So we’re just riding it on faith and a good work ethic and positivity and hoping we’re going to be OK. I think we will.
It’s important to stay positive. In 2009, I got laid off. I had been married for a couple years. I was working in a casino starting out. I had two little kids, and the recession hit, and I was left without a job. Very scary times.
I had the idea of getting into food because I saw the lack of Mexicali-style tacos I grew up eating. It wasn’t a thing in LA. I saw the opportunity, but nothing was guaranteed. I hadn’t gone to culinary school. I was 27 years old. I was very naive. I didn’t know anything about the industry.
I had nothing but hope and a dream, to be honest. And a lot of the mentality had to do with being in the casino. You’re in a casino, man, and you see people putting big risks on the line. You live with that, and you kind of build that skin of, “I’m going to take this risk, and it’s OK if it doesn’t work out.”
The influence of the casino really pushed me to do a lot of things I’ve done in business. In May 2009, a few months after being laid off, I opened a taco stand in a parking lot on First and Beaudry in downtown Los Angeles. It’s helped so much to know that my wife Sarah has always been supportive of my crazy dreams, from the beginning of the street stand to what’s happening now.
At the stand, I just focused on what I grew up with. I’ve always enjoyed cooking the stuff I knew in Mexico. Weekend barbecue, it’s very common where I lived. You would do it almost every other week.
I ran the idea of the street stand by my dad before I started. He wasn’t happy. He paid for part of my art school when I came to America to study fashion design and merchandising. He was like, “You’re an educated kid, and now you’re going to sell tacos on the street.” My mom talked him into it, and he gave me the green light.
He drove me to Mexicali to the wholesale district. where all the taqueros buy their stuff. I got a lot of things there—little clay pots and salsa bowls and plates and kitchen rags. I wanted to focus on the little details. We bought Coca-Cola tables from a taco stand. I wanted to make it feel like the streets in Mexico, and it paid off. That was part of the charm we had on First and Beaudry.
I bought a grill from Costco, but obviously it’s not made for taqueros. We went around East LA and just asked people and ended up in the house of some guy who was known for welding stuff. He tweaked the grill to our specifications. He made us a comal for tortillas.
The honor system when you paid, that was huge. People would place an order and ask how much it is. We told them to enjoy their food and just pay at the end. When they were done, they would tell us what they ate and we would tell them what to pay. People were like, “That’s crazy.” But Mexican people who knew about street food in Mexico were like, “That’s really cool. That’s like back home.”
People would come back the next day and say, “We feel horrible. We forgot to pay for something.” We would say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s cool. Thank you for coming back.” We just made so many friends that way.
Yelp was massive at the time. At one point, we were number one on Yelp for a while. Blogging was big back then too. The bloggers came in. Bill Esparza wrote a piece about us. Then one after another, the media came: LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times. We got voted best tacos in LA by Taco Madness. That’s what really took us over the border. Then ABC7 came and wanted to do a piece.
We were excited to get all this press and attention. We were huge fans of Kogi back then. What had happened with Kogi was starting to happen with us. But we didn’t have a taco truck. We were paying cash once a month to a parking-lot tenant. The health department showed up and closed us.
I still think of the street stand as the good old days. The overhead was nothing. The margins were beautiful. I can see why a lot of these taqueros now don’t want to go legit.
The money I made on First and Beaudry was how I saved up to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Paul was a customer at the stand before he became my partner. I later opened Salazar with Billy Silverman, who was also my customer before he became my partner.
There has always been that casino mentality with me. I came in here with 20 bucks and I got two grand in my pocket and let it ride. That’s the story of my life. I started with nothing. I never felt like I had anything to lose. And the difference between this and a casino is that you love doing this and it’s something that’s good. It’s positive and noble, and that’s where the odds are different.
I think a lot of people are too scared to start whatever dream they have. They want to know everything before they jump on it. I always give them the same advice: “Just jump on it and learn as you go.”
I’ve opened restaurants in Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Austin. Those experiences help me tremendously now. It’s really strange. It’s the same wherever you go. But it’s also very different. The biggest challenge I have is I represent a style of food that’s hard to pull off sometimes in different corners of the world when I don’t have what I grew up with or what I’m known for. That’s where the mind of a chef comes in. All these years and this experience, having chef friends, doing collaboration dinners, staging, whatever you call it, it’s all helped me use my creativity and knowledge to make the best possible Mexican cuisine.
The way I am as a chef is the same in every single restaurant. I care about my staff. I care about the way I run the restaurant. There’s a different work ethic in every country. In Mumbai, I couldn’t cut an onion because my staff wouldn’t let me. I’m trying to cut an onion, and they’re like, “No, Chef, let me cut it for you.”
In Hong Kong, people are very disciplined. They maybe don’t call in sick as much and respect their work a little more than in some other places. There’s a lot that’s very different. But what I’ve learned is that if you respect your employees in any country, they respect you back.
Another thing that shaped who I am today is the two years I spent as a Mormon missionary. This was after high school, long before I started cooking for a living. Serving a full-time mission helped me learn to love and serve my employees, patrons, and colleagues with meekness and humility.
So this is what I’m doing in San Gabriel. It sends a message to my guys that I’m willing to get down and dirty with them. It’s my business, but it’s really for them. I always tell them that. “As much as this is my business, it’s your business too. And if you take care of it, you’re going to be OK.” They really capture that. They ride with us.
This is very important for me to say—Paul, man, he’s been super key in all of this. He’s a brother of mine before he even is a business partner. We’ve grown so close through all these years. He’s always been super supportive of all the other restaurants I’ve done, even though he’s not a part of them. He’s been super patient with me, even though we’ve always been planning to do more Mexicalis.
But these other restaurants, and being on Netflix’s The Final Table, have been good opportunities for the brand and for me personally as a chef. Paul has always been, “Go ahead, Esdras, and get that done. It will be good for you. And whenever you get a chance, let’s focus on Mexicali.” You know, now it’s time to do that, and that’s why this is so important.
Paul’s cut back hours in his dry-cleaning business, so he comes and paints. He’s getting dirty too. It says a lot about Paul. He’s in Brentwood. He doesn’t need to do that crazy drive. He could be at home with his beautiful family. But he also wants to show us that he’s going to be here painting and scraping away. It sends a message to me and the guys. The future is uncertain, and we know this is a huge risk, but faith keeps us going.
Top photo: Charlene Wong.