dineLA Interview: Loteria Grill Chef Jimmy Shaw

Photo by Vanessa Stump

“Do what you love,” is an oft-heard refrain, but one that’s easier said than done. Mexico City native Jimmy Shaw has always loved to cook. But he chose what he thought was a more sensible career: advertising. Seventeen years in however, he decided he had had enough. When a serendipitous meeting led to an opportunity to open a restaurant in the Original Farmers Market, Shaw jumped at the chance to introduce the sort of Mexican spot he thought was missing in Los Angeles, the kind of place his parents might have gone to on a date. That was in 2002, and the restaurant was Loteria Grill, which became known for its authentic Mexican fare, built on family recipes that generations have tested and perfected. Since that initial success, Shaw has opened several more Loteria Grills. Shaw shares his thoughts on the journey.

Your mom has been described as a great cook.
My mother couldn’t boil water when she met my dad and she was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of my great-grandmother, who was of French and Spanish descent from Oaxaca. My mother learned from her and inspired a palate in all four of her kids. When we'd go to restaurants with my mom, we’d sit down and try to break down recipes. She really allowed us to understand layers of flavors.

When did you go from simply enjoying food to being actively interested in food?
The catalyst for me was going to college. All of a sudden I was eating institutional food. I wasn’t very happy with that. One of the things I remember my mom saying is, “You should never eat a bad meal.” That was one of the things that inspired me to cook. A little later on, while I was still in college, my dad earned in pesos. Halfway through my college career, Mexico suffered an enormous devaluation so I had to get a job. First I started doing prep work in restaurants and then decided what the heck, I can be a private chef.

How did you get into advertising?
I needed a green card. I don’t know why I didn’t think food was a reasonable career. The only place I could get a green card was Spanish advertising. I kept up my cooking personally, entertained my friends. One of my housemates would say, “You’re wasting your time. Open a restaurant, and I’ll be your first partner.” When we opened at the Farmers Market, he was.

You were one of the first of the new kids on the block to open at the Original Farmers Market, yes?
The kitchen gods looked in my favor. I had had a long advertising career but I really did not enjoy going to work. I made good money. Sunday nights were very depressing for me, and I’d get happy through cooking. I was having a conversation with my dearly departed dad. He said to me, “You’ve been very fortunate. It’s time to give back to the community.” I got involved in the neighborhood council in 2001 and met Hank Hilty, who owned the Farmers Market. When I got the call from them, my thought was they want me to do some Spanish language advertising for them. They wanted to hear my [restaurant] pitch.

One of the things I felt growing up in Mexico was the idea of tacos as part of a date, the equivalent of sushi here. So tacos and a movie. That dynamic was missing in the U.S. The other thing that was happening was what was presented as Mexican food here was really an Americanized version of it. We weren’t seeing great stews and salsas and regional cuisines of Mexico. I felt Mexican food had been shortchanged in the U.S.

Was the restaurant an immediate success?
We struggled for many months. Some people didn’t get it. We had two real big things that made it an "overnight success" after several months: an interview I had with Evan Kleiman on Good Food, and S. Irene Virbila wrote an article to change my life. The headline was, “It’s hard to keep Mexican food this good under wraps.”

Were customers, particularly those accustomed to the previous Mexican restaurant tenant, put off by the prices?
Mexican food has been pigeonholed into having to be cheap. It’s no different from Italian food 20 or 25 years ago. I often say Mexican food is still in its "spaghetti phase." We will soon get to our pasta phase, but not yet. What’s the most crowded restaurant in town? Mozza. There’s a big difference between the days of spaghetti and meatballs and Mozza. I believe that same transition will happen in Mexican food.

Mexican food doesn’t seem to get the respect of other cuisines.
It’s the immigrant food and the cheap immigrant food. Mexican food is a heck of a lot more than a taco of carne asada. In Mexico you’re hard pressed to find a taco of carne asada. Mexican food is not simply a piece of chicken breast slapped on a grill and chopped up. When I see tacos with carne asada on a menu, it’s like walking into a Morton’s and getting a menu that says the special is “meat.” Mexican food has been dumbed down. In an enormous way, it has never been smarted up. It’s always been left at the basic corndog level.

A sensitive question: you don’t look like what many people might think of as "Mexican." Has this been an issue?
Once you meet me you understand. After two minutes of conversation you see I am a fluent Spanish speaker. Occasionally people will put a comment on the Internet. But I am very, very Mexican, very bicultural too. I grew up in a very bicultural world: Anglo and Mexican. My heart is very Mexican. It really hasn’t been in an issue. Actually, it’s been an advantage.

How so?
It’s a conversation piece, a fun story. There’s a reason I didn’t call my restaurant Jimmy’s. I don’t have the ego. And who is going to believe a guy named Jimmy owns a Mexican restaurant? The reason I gave it the name Loteria, a children’s game (Mexican bingo), was I wanted a place that would be instantly recognizable as Mexican by a Mexican. I felt if we did that well and if you marry that with the reaction I had seen my entire childhood of Americans eating delicious Mexican food in Mexico, it was a winning formula. I targeted Mexican expats.

Comment on this statement: "Burritos aren’t really Mexican." But they are on the Loteria menu.
There are two sides to that. Burritos as such are not really Mexican. There is a Northern Mexican taco called a burrita. It’s a feminine name. Often it’s made with machaca rolled in eggs in a tortilla. The history of burritos comes from the north of Mexico, which is really the inspiration for what has been most of Mexican food in the U.S. So burritas were the Northern Mexican taco of the cowboy. Then you got a guy in Texas saying, “Burrita, burrita, burrito.” Why are burritos on my menu? For the first year at Loteria, we did not serve burritos. I’ll tell you what happened. I made a commitment to my guys that I would not take a vacation the first year, but after week 52 I would take a vacation. I got back from a week away and one of the cooks said, “Jimmy, I put burritos on the menu when you were gone.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “Sales went up thirty percent.” That sort of blindsided me, but it worked. At some point, if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em. But they are always last on the list. We try not to push them, and we make them with ingredients you have in Mexico.

How do you find your locations? Do you have it all plotted out or is it more organic?
It happens organically. When people say, “Where do you want to put a restaurant?,” I say, “Wherever people eat.” We have been very fortunate in that we have become neighborhood places. Our bread and butter are the people who come back two or three times a week or month. We’re fortunate developers are looking at us. I’m very flattered by the calls I get.

Any concern about maintaining quality with your multiple locations?
I have a commissary for that very reason. The stews and sauces, guisos and salsas, are all pretty complicated recipes so we do make them in one kitchen and distribute that early in the morning to every restaurant.

Do you still spend any time in the restaurant kitchens?
Sure. I cook less and less now. I don’t have a line job. But I do recipe development. Admittedly, a lot of my time recently is doing more management stuff.

Do you like it?
It’s a good mix. I prefer the kitchen side but someone has to do the management.

Do you get to eat out at all?
I go out to eat a lot in my neighborhood. Robata Jinya is a great little Japanese place. They serve the most amazing Kyoto spicy ramen. Of course I like Mozza. I’ve been going to STREET quite a bit. I go to BLD. I loved Grace when it was around. Joan’s on Third is a place I eat frequently; the ficele sandwich is so simple, so good. I have not been to Picca yet and I’ve been dying to go. One place I’ve been eating is Casita Mexicana in Bell. Those guys can cook.

What are your thoughts on dineLA Restaurant Week?
I love it. In Mexico there is a great executive lunch called comida corrida. It’s a fixed price, three- to four-course meal done on an affordable basis. [We launched] that as a lunch special right after Restaurant Week. Restaurant Week gets people excited about food. It allows us to put some adventurous things on the menu that have ended up being permanent menu items. A few years ago we put lengua (tongue) on the Restaurant Week menu. It was so successful it stayed. It motivates people to try new things. Comida corrida was inspired by Restaurant Week.

Ever miss your old career?
NEVER. I finally feel like I’m not going to have to get an advertising job ever again. The most gratifying thing for me is people come try us for a meal and within 24 hours, you see the same face. That’s a beautiful feeling. We do a lot of weddings and rehearsal dinners. That’s incredibly gratifying too. What could be a bigger honor? It’s such a validation for the hard work we’ve put in. This isn’t just a business. It’s too hard to do just for the business side of it. I had a conversation with Mary Sue Milliken about this: that those of us in the food business are nurturing by nature. So if you get that feedback from your guests that what you’ve provided to them is more than food—it’s comfort and nostalgia—it’s a pretty neat thing.

Do you have a vision for how many Loterias you want to open?
I have two answers to that. First, up until the point where I think the food will suffer. The second one is at the point it’s no longer fun. That’s where we stop. I have no need to have a huge number. If by act of God it happens, that’s fine. But there’s no plan that this has to be a nationwide chain.