Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, both born in the Mexican state of Jalisco, met while working for airlines with adjacent offices in Los Angeles. They shared a passion for cooking, and they opened La Casita Mexicana in Bell to start 1999. The duo has gained a devoted following through their food, and by frequent appearances on Univision and Telemundo, and through their role as judges on Top Chef Estrellas. On October 8, we met at Mexicano, a stylish new restaurant from Jaime and Ramiro in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which is where they’ll operate fast casual Flautas in the mall food court. They shared insights into their progression as chefs, and what to expect in the future.
Joshua Lurie: How would you say Mexicano differs from, and is similar to, La Casita Mexicana?
Ramiro Arvizu: It’s different and similar in many aspects. We’re sticking with traditional Mexican food, but we’re bringing new dishes and new flavors. Some of them unknown to people, and some are very traditional, very well known.
JL: What does a dish have to be to go on the menu at Mexicano, versus La Casita?
We have an innovation that I think people are going to like. We’ll have tamales made to order, and we’re going to be able to make tamales in 10 minutes for you. You’re going to be able to get a cochinita pibil tamale, be able to have a mole tamale, chicken, pork, and vegetarian, a big array of tamales made to order. You’ll be able to see the menu and a list of 10 or 12 different tamales. It will be a big tamale, a meal in itself.
JL: Originally, I remember you were planning to do an enchilada concept. Why the decision to switch to flautas?
Jaime Martin Del Campo: Enchilada House is a project that’s still on hold. That’s going to be our next project. It was because the economy went down. That was not a good time to go and open Enchilada House. Flautas reminded me of the type of appetizer I grew up with. In Mexico, it’s street food. In the beginning, it was just Mexicano, but why not open Flautas there too, and keep intact Enchilada House? Also, at the same time, there was space in the food court, so we would have access to that. That’s Flautas, but we haven’t forgot about Enchilada House.
RA: Another thing that really brought us here, we saw the Latin community was growing so rapidly that we decided to bring the flavors of Mexico to this area…We’re very excited. We want this community to come and enjoy good food, good drinks and good ambiance. It’s like taking them to Mexico, without a passport.
JL: You’re both obviously much further along in your career, after 15 years. You have a lot more resources than when you first opened in Bell. With more resources, what was your thought process with the design and experience that you couldn’t offer originally?
RA: Nowadays we have more freedom to pick the things we were not able to pick 15 years ago. Now we can say, “I want this mural,” and I can ask a painter to do that. “I want these lamps.” “I want the tile similar to the one that my grandmother had.” Now we can have these luxuries that we couldn’t have before.
JL: Going back to La Casita Mexicana, what do you remember about that first night in the kitchen there?
RA: That was crazy. We ran out of food.
JMCD: We ran out of food. There were people lining up outside the restaurant. It got to the point where I said, “Ramiro, we don’t have food. What are we going to do?” People just said, “I’ll buy whatever you guys have. Whatever’s left, I can buy it from you.” Now we have more experience. We know how to run a kitchen. We didn’t have experience at that time. Now we have 15, 16 years of experience, so we’re going to be ready for that. The first day we open here, it’s going to be exciting to have a team behind us, people who have been working with us for 10, 12 years, people who have been so loyal to our kitchen. They’re going to support us.
RA: I got scared that day, the first time in that kitchen. “Oh my God, what did I get into?” It was so busy, and at the end, I realized that we were blessed since the first day that we opened.
JL: What do you expect on the first night in the Mexicano kitchen?
RA: I expect the same thing, because we are putting a lot of love, and we’re going through the same emotions as when we opened La Casita. The feeling is the same. The excitement is the same. I hope we have the same turnout.
JL: What skills do you feel like you’ve developed in the last 15 years that allow you to be better restaurateurs, better chefs?
JMDC: In my case, also patient. I wasn’t really patient with people. Now I understand that not everybody was born to be a chef. I get to know all the people in my kitchen. I know they like to be doing tortillas. I’m not going to try and force myself to turn every person who walks into my kitchen into a chef, because they’re not going to be a chef. If they do good tortillas, I’m going to keep them doing good tortillas. I’m not going to stress myself and trouble myself with trying to make people as perfect as you are.
RA: That’s one thing that we have learned and are applying to this new restaurant. We have learned to delegate. That, in the past 15 years, has worked for us. We were learning how to delegate and to teach people the way you want things done.
JL: Has the way the two of you working together changed, when it comes to creating dishes?
JMDC: It’s about the same. It’s still two humble guys who love to cook, love to share their ideas. Maybe he likes less spicy, or I don’t like so much salt, but it comes to the point where we come up with ideas and give it a twist on the same plate of Mexican cuisine.
RA: Everything is based in respect for each other, and also for the admiration and respect we have for the dishes and the ingredients that we use. If we stick to that, everything will work well.
JL: Tell me about the most recent dish that the two of you developed together. Who came up with the initial idea, what was the process like, and then the finished product?