By Anne Cruz
Tania Apolinar and Giovanni Cervantes are co-owners of Taqueria Ramirez, a Mexico City-style taqueria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Apolinar serves as the general manager, while as chef Cervantes helms the comal choricera—a specialized pan for heating tortillas on a raised center, surrounded by a moat for cooking meat or other ingredients. Since opening in the fall of 2021, Taqueria Ramirez has grown from a Greenpoint secret to drawing lines well down Oak Street before opening.
GIOVANNI CERVANTES: I was talking about the idea of having a Mexican restaurant for a while, but only last year did it become clear that it had to be this style of tacos. Years before I was doing other projects related to food. I was cooking at a dive bar here in Greenpoint for a couple of years, and I was making tacos there, but it was more of a side project. We started to put it into more of a serious plan during the first year after the pandemic. Tania and I were working together in a photo studio. At the beginning of 2021, we put our minds together in terms of what we were going to do if the studio didn’t survive the pandemic.
Our studio was based in Greenpoint, only two blocks away from where the taqueria is now. This is the neighborhood we’re in all the time. We have a close relationship with other business owners and other retailers here. We didn’t want to open anywhere else.
TANIA APOLINAR: It’s also a big necessity for people. There’s a couple of other Mexican restaurants, but nothing exactly like our taqueria. It was a good addition to the neighborhood.
CERVANTES: After going to Mexico City to put my mind into exactly what I was looking for—the options are so open when you think about food, and even just Mexican restaurants—I came back and said to Tania, “I think I know what we need to do.”
My memories of living in Mexico were my inspiration—the street taquerias I used to go to in high school. During my trip to Mexico City, I went back to those places and tried to understand the surroundings, music, and people who frequently go there. I felt like I was going back to those times in high school when I had no money and I needed to eat. The tacos were beautiful, cheap, and very enjoyable. It was part of that culture that I wanted to bring with our taqueria.
APOLINAR: One of the elements we were looking for was the open kitchen. We designed the kitchen from scratch and had our comal choricero actually built in Mexico City and brought it here. We definitely wanted to spotlight the taqueros, the importance of seeing them prepare your food.
It also affected our decision to not do takeout at the taqueria. Initially, when we opened it was so busy we literally didn’t have time to wrap up to-go containers, but the main reason we opted for dine-in only was that we wanted people to experience tacos at our spot. When you take a taco and travel 15 minutes with it, the freshness has passed. You’re not going to have the same experience as when you have it right away. Tacos are not a meal that you have to invest too much time in—dining-in also gives us an opportunity to educate people on the food.
CERVANTES: Most of our customers are still getting to know this concept. Everyone is already used to al pastor, so it’s good that we have something people understand. As time goes by, we’re building more legitimacy, but Tania still has to repeat herself a lot during the day.
APOLINAR: We didn’t want to summarize all the ingredients on the menu board. We wanted to go through this phase of educating customers ourselves.
CERVANTES: Otherwise people would say, “I’ll have one of the beef and one of the pork sausage,” rather than ordering suadero or longaniza. That’s why the open kitchen is important, particularly when you don’t know what something is. You can see it right away as Tania explains what it is—that makes people more comfortable.
I’m honored to share the culture that we’re coming from. I’ve been living in New York for 11 or 12 years, and have seen the evolution of Mexican food here. It used to be more sour cream or lettuce or pico de gallo. In Mexico City, we’re not familiar with those combinations. Then you had other places opening up and younger people getting involved in opening Mexican restaurants in New York, which opened up space for other things in Mexican food to happen.
I feel like half of Brooklyn moved to Mexico City during the pandemic at some point, spending their unemployment benefits over there. So they understand what a real taco tastes like and are more educated on the real street food in Mexico. We can hear customers chatting with each other, and I often hear people saying, “Oh yeah, I love Mexico City,” or “When I was in Mexico City ….” Customers now compare us to old-school taquerias in Mexico City, like Los Cucuyos.
APOLINAR: With all the recent attention and increased demand, we’re also adapting. We’re going to open more hours. We’re going to have to close in the middle of the day. We’re having one whole trompo of pastor a day. Yesterday was the first day that we sold out of pastor at 8 o’clock.
CERVANTES: The trompo is 100 pounds of meat—it was a huge amount of pastor. We’re going to have to make two trompos a day in the summer. We’re going to have to adapt with the demand, and that’s all we can do.
Honestly, when it comes to crowds, it’s just taking one order after the other one. As long as we are making the food and delivering it right away, it will be okay. People will be happy. I used to worry too much about the wait. In Mexico, a wait is kind of rare. You get your taco right away because there are taquerias on every corner. Here, we’re going to have to deal with it client by client, order by order, and it’s going to be fine. We’re just going to have to be patient.
We still have some things to work on at the location where we are. We’re not quite done there yet. But it’s natural to think, “Oh, shit. We’re going to need another space to supply this demand.” So maybe we’ll expand, I don’t know. It’s exciting for me to think about that possibility, but at the same time I don’t want to lose how special and unique this place is. It’s good in a way to think about the business, but I don’t know how I would control the quality. So that’s where we’re at for now.
APOLINAR: We didn’t come from backgrounds of restaurant life, so everything really has been about learning. Obviously we’ve made mistakes along the way, but that just makes us more knowledgeable and ready for the future. We’re learning how to disconnect and how to have work-life balance as well.
CERVANTES: It’s been challenging. We are definitely getting a little better. Every week we try to be more organized and anticipate a little bit more, but we’re still not there yet. Monday, for example, is our first day that we take a rest. That’s the only day that we really do not want to do anything but stay at home and maybe eat outside. We miss that a lot, being able to just spend time together in our apartment. Tuesdays I would like to do more stuff for myself, spend time by myself, and do yoga. Tania just joined spinning classes. But that is something that we still need to work out, finding that balance.