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Ruben Rodriguez On Blazing Ahead With Opening New Restaurants

The pandemic might have shut down some opportunities, but moving forward is the only way to go.

Ruben Rodriguez is executive chef and owner of Nai Tapas restaurant in New York. In 2020, he collaborated with the owner of Los Angeles’ Carnitas El Momo, Juan “Billy” Acosta, to open upscale taqueria Amigo by Nai in New York.

The pandemic has been really rough. We started with a 65-plus team at Nai, and when it first happened, I tried to keep as many people as I possibly could with all the resources that I had, the bank accounts and everything. Of course, it came to a point where we had to start cutting shifts and letting people go. Once we reopened again, when they did the whole outdoor dining thing and they allowed indoor dining, I was able to rehire a good 25 percent of what I had before. With the indoor shutdown, I’m completely closed again.

It makes no sense to keep it going with outdoor dining at Nai. I can’t imagine anybody’s going to want a fine-dining experience in the cold. For my kind of setup, it just doesn’t work at all. So unfortunately, I had to let everybody go again.

Nai is a three-floor restaurant in the middle of the Village. Very few restaurants are going to be able to take that spot and actually pay that massive rent in these times. So it’s weird to hear landlords saying, “Yes, we want to figure out how to work with you, but the most we can do is 10 percent off your rent.” That’s not going to work on a $26,000 rent. Then they’ll say, “Let’s take rent payments from the deposit, and then you repay it,” or “Why don’t you take out loans?” It’s like they’re guiding me to get myself more into the ditch.

I pretty much paid rent this whole time. The only month that I haven’t paid rent so far was December because of the closures. But I did start getting so many phone calls from brokers about moving to another location. There’s another spot where it actually might make more sense to just stop paying rent, lose the security deposit, and relocate. That’s a very strong possibility if landlords don’t negotiate. I just don’t understand their position, because who’s going to come in and rent that space if we move?

The takeout box at Amigo by Nai. Photo: Courtesy Amigo by Nai.

Pre-pandemic, I had four or five projects I was working on. I’ve had the same kitchen crew for the whole 14 years that we’ve been doing this at Nai. One of my right-hand people—he’s my guy, he’s my everything in the kitchen. We’re more than just workers. He’s Mexican, and I always told him that one day we were going to do a project together—an elevated, upscale taqueria, but we’re going to make it our thing.

Coincidentally, in January 2020 I got a phone call that I should check out a place around the corner from Nai. I go see it, and the place is perfect for what we wanted to do. Obviously it’s a whole different lane of food than what I do at Nai.

So while I was researching, I came across a video of El Momo in Los Angeles. We took a flight to LA, and I went to this spot with really no intentions of anything. I just wanted to experience it and see the vibe and the whole energy of it. I happened to meet Billy Acosta. We clicked right away, and I told him, “Hey, man. I’m going to take you back to New York, and we’re going to do a taqueria together.” He didn’t believe me.

I flew back to New York and sent him a plane ticket and booked him a hotel room. He came in towards the end of February, I did a tasting for him at Nai, the guy fell in love, and that’s it. The next week we were ready to do this. And boom! Then the whole pandemic thing happens.

Amigo by Nai is set up so when you walk in, it feels like a lively Mexican place, but with a more modern look. So you’re kind of confused at that point whether you’re in a taqueria or a high-end restaurant. You have this very beautiful bar going on, and then you cross through the arch, and then you enter the taqueria. I always thought there was something so cool about mixing the two worlds—having an oxtail taco or a carnitas taco and at the same time, having a tartare and some oysters.

Now with the pandemic restrictions, we aren’t able to take advantage of the bar, which is terrible. We weren’t able to do the whole appetizer thing when we opened up, so we created this to-go format. We created pizza boxes and printed “Not Pizza” on the top of them. We did that format where you walk in, you go to the window, you order. At first it was really cool. Obviously, as it got colder, that affected the whole process. We did the deck outside with the heaters, but it’s just incredibly hard.

The outdoor dining deck at Amigo by Nai. Photo: Sarah Moyer.

It’s very disappointing, because it really is a beautiful project, and it had a lot of hype behind it. To open up in the middle of this pandemic is really, really the worst timing possible. But I feel we’ll get through it. There’s still a big buzz behind the restaurant, but it definitely affects how we can make the business work.

I don’t know what the future holds, or what we’re going to have to transition to. But I would hate to plan for a post-pandemic restaurant industry. I just won’t do it. I’m planning as if there’s no pandemic. Of course, I’m taking into consideration separation, all that kind of stuff. But I just feel if we do restaurants only arranged around the pandemic, it would be better to have no restaurants. There’s just no point.

I’m blazing ahead with my other projects as if nothing happened. I don’t have a choice. Everything’s already been signed, so my back’s against the wall. What else am I doing at this point besides trying to keep it going?

It’s costing me an arm and a leg. I’m definitely not putting myself in the smartest business situation, but I feel that stopping and restarting is worse. I’m just not going to allow this to stop me. New York City needs to come back to life, and we all have to do our part. I know we can complain every day, all day. But I believe that as individual restaurant owners, we have to keep pushing to get ourselves to the other side of all this.