From an LA street cart to Hong Kong and India: the ‘Taco King’ story
- Nine years ago, Esdras Ochoa was selling tacos in a Los Angeles car park. Now he has become a kind of unofficial global ambassador of Mexican food
- With restaurants in LA and Hong Kong, now his sights are on India
Esdras Ochoa is known as the world’s “Taco King”. It is a nickname he never sought but one that is increasingly difficult to deny. He has already spread the gospel of northern Mexican cuisine from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and now he is eyeing India.
Ochoa hopes that opening a restaurant in Mumbai will help introduce regional Mexican food to the world’s second most populous country.
The chef can be difficult to track down, but when caught he is eager to talk, and has a lot on his mind: his Hong Kong restaurant (his newest), his family at home in Los Angeles, the trials of sourcing Mexican chillies from more than 9,000 miles (14,500km) away, and what “authenticity” really means.
Ochoa was born in cosmopolitan Mexico City but grew up between Mexicali, the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California, and Calexico, its neighbour across the US border.
The reality of towns along the Mexico-US border is different from the impression given by the news. Often – as in Calexico and Mexicali – it is less a case of two distinct cities separated by an impermeable perimeter, but more like one city, divided politically but united in culture and identity.
This is especially the case along the border of Baja California and California, where crossing back and forth is an integral part of daily life for many whose families and jobs may fall on different sides of the line.
When in his early 20s, Ochoa, like many others growing up in the borderlands, gravitated to Los Angeles. His upbringing had been rich in the food and cooking of his Mexican family, but Ochoa did not head to LA to cook. He wanted to pursue his passion for design.
“It was never a childhood goal of mine to be a chef,” he says. “I have no formal training. I came to Los Angeles to study fashion design and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.”
Ultimately though, it was the scarcity of the northern Mexican food he loved that drove him into the restaurant business.
The food he grew up with, and would go on to champion on three continents, is defined by its bold flavours and simplicity: beef, chicken and seafood grilled over wood fires, served with chewy tortillas, and a wide variety of condiments and fresh salsas.
“There was plenty of Mexican food to eat [in LA] but there wasn’t a large variety at the time and I was really longing for the food of my childhood – the food I would have in Mexicali. In particular, the street tacos of Mexicali were different than what I saw in LA. I didn’t see flame-grilled meats, or an expansive salsa bar to top my tacos.”
In 2009, he sank his savings into a rudimentary taco cart that he set up in a car park in downtown Los Angeles. He called it Mexicali Taco & Co. Despite the hyper-competitive world of Los Angeles Mexican cuisine, Ochoa’s success was rapid and astounding. Within a year, his cart was ranked No 1 on Yelp in all of LA. Then in 2011, he put down roots, opening his first bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Chinatown.
Four years later, Ochoa expanded again and opened Salazar, an outdoor restaurant in the up-and-coming LA neighbourhood of Frogtown. The restaurant served the tacos and flame-grilled meats of northern Mexico along with salads, a few California-inspired main courses, and fresh cocktails. It was an immediate and lasting hit.
Ochoa was at the top of his game, working as executive chef and co-owner of one of the country’s hottest restaurants, and the Los Angeles food world was watching closely for his next move. That made it all the more surprising when Ochoa set his sights 7,000 miles away, on Hong Kong.
“I have a deep appreciation for Asian culture,” he says. “My wife is Asian, so is my business partner at Mexicali, as well as a ton of my friends. These are people I deeply care about, so of course I also love and care for their culture.”
He had never even been to Hong Kong, though.
“It was a place that I had always wanted to visit, and when I had the opportunity to open up the restaurant, I felt like it was an adventure I most definitely had to take. My partners were telling me how much Hong Kong needs the food that they tasted at Mexicali Taco & Co and Salazar.”
But what really drove him, as always, was his “desire to share my food, culture and experiences with new people”.
His partners failed to tell him, however, that he was one in a long line of chefs who had tried to bring authentic Mexican food to Hong Kong. The city is one of the world’s great destinations for international dining: aside from its obviously excellent Cantonese cuisine, it boasts truly world-class French, Italian and Spanish restaurants. But while the diversity of Hong Kong’s dining scene sets it apart from other metropolises in the region, somehow the city could never quite get its head around Mexican food.
New taco concepts are favourite targets of derision among Hong Kong foodies, being either underwhelming, over-elaborate to the point of distraction, or just overpriced.
Ochoa wasn’t worried. He had a simple and proven concept that was in his blood. And he knew about Hong Kong’s welcoming business environment and the lack of red tape that often bogged down new restaurant projects in the United States.
In 2017, he headed to Hong Kong to open 11 Westside in Kennedy Town – a neighbourhood he chose because it reminded him of his favourite LA stomping grounds, Silver Lake and Koreatown. From the beginning, things were more exciting and less simple than he had imagined.
“We thought it’d be easier to open up a place in Hong Kong because there aren’t as many municipal restrictions as in the States,” he says. “But like all restaurant projects, there are delays and logistical issues. Equipment was brought in from the States, we had to find special vendors for certain ingredients, and we had to adjust to the feedback we received from our guests.”
He soon fell in love with the city’s wet markets but was less smitten with having to order even basic Mexican peppers, such as jalapeños, weeks in advance. Some of his staff had never even heard of salsa.
Against all odds, 11 Westside was a hit, with hungry diners queuing for hours in the restaurant’s first days to try Ochoa’s tacos.
For all the complications and obstacles, the hardest part of running a restaurant in Hong Kong for Ochoa has been homesickness.
“The biggest thing I miss about LA is my family – my wife and two children,” he says. “They are so supportive of me travelling the world to fulfil my dream, but I miss them terribly.”
Still, the chef shows no sign of slowing down and is on track to becoming a household name with his appearance on Netflix’s new cooking competition show, The Final Table, which premiered on November 20.
While taping the show, Ochoa was exposed to the cooking of chefs from all over the world, including Amninder Sandhu from India. She introduced him to some of her investors and before he knew it he was off to Mumbai to look into opening a Mexican restaurant there.
Ochoa is enthusiastic about this new move. “I love India. The hospitality is world class. Everyone is very welcoming and makes you feel at home among family. So being Mexican, with similar customs, I fell right in.”
As with Hong Kong, he is having to familiarise himself with both a new business landscape – “margins are completely different here because of food cost and labour” – and a new dining public.
“As far as food goes, people are open and excited about new trends, just like in Hong Kong,” he says. “The new restaurant will be Mexican, of course, but naturally being in India it will have a big vegetarian push.”
The door hasn’t opened on this new and as yet unnamed Mumbai restaurant, but Ochoa is already planning on setting up shop in multiple locations in India.
In nine short years, Ochoa has gone from chef to a kind of unofficial ambassador of Mexican food. As such, when not focused on running his restaurants, his mind is inevitably preoccupied with loftier topics, such as what authenticity means in the global food context.
“Authentic is a difficult word because everyone’s own experience is authentic to themselves,” he says.
For Ochoa, authentic just means the food of his family. As he gets older, he says, he finds himself increasingly thinking back on his upbringing and the countless times he watched his mother and aunts in the kitchen preparing food, showing the family their love through their cooking.
“I want to make my hometown of Mexicali proud,” he says, “and be a true son to northern Mexico.”