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Tale of two Mexican restaurants: Lola 55 is on fire; El Jardín rises from the ashes

Tweaks to El Jardín Cantina’s dining room include adding semi-enclosed booths to add intimacy to the large space. The light fixtures, which all used to be blue, are also now multicolored.
Tweaks to El Jardín Cantina’s dining room include adding semi-enclosed booths to add intimacy to the large space. The light fixtures, which all used to be blue, are also now multicolored.
(Courtesy photo)

The two eateries opened around the same time, paid homage to Mexican women and earned Bib Gourmand nods from Michelin. But their paths veered into very different directions

Both Lola 55 and El Jardín Cantina threw a party on Sept. 9, which was fitting since the two Mexican restaurants have a lot in common. They are also a world apart.

Lola 55, in the East Village, was celebrating its first anniversary, while El Jardín Cantina — which had been known simply as El Jardín — was marking its grand reopening at Liberty Station.

Lola 55’s unique concept has quickly become a local favorite in San Diego. It’s also a critical darling of the chef community. At the fast-casual taco shop’s one-year anniversary party, a number of noted chefs each prepared a tribute dish: Gan Suebsarakham and Steven Torres, of Pop Pie Co./Stella Jean; Phillip Esteban of Consortium Holdings; Mike Arquines of Mostra Coffee/Lab Dining; Willy Eick of Mission Ave Bar & Grill; and Davin Waite of Wrench & Rodent/Whet Noodle/The Plot.
Lola 55’s unique concept has quickly become a local favorite in San Diego. It’s also a critical darling of the chef community. At the fast-casual taco shop’s one-year anniversary party, a number of noted chefs each prepared a tribute dish: Gan Suebsarakham and Steven Torres, of Pop Pie Co./Stella Jean; Phillip Esteban of Consortium Holdings; Mike Arquines of Mostra Coffee/Lab Dining; Willy Eick of Mission Ave Bar & Grill; and Davin Waite of Wrench & Rodent/Whet Noodle/The Plot.
(Sam Wells photo)

They opened within two months of each other in the summer of 2018 — El Jardín in June, Lola 55 in August. Both concepts were ambitious in their own way. Lola 55 sought to elevate the Tijuana street taco, using primo ingredients, with an eye toward creating an eatery that could be franchised. El Jardín, led by high-profile chef Claudette Zepeda, was a rare fine dining restaurant that featured a modern interpretation of regional Mexican cooking.

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Months of extensive travel, eating, research and recipe testing had preceded the pair’s launches. Both were owned by successful businessmen: at Lola, Frank Vizcarra, a former McDonald’s executive; at El Jardín, Johan Engman, founder of prolific Breakfast Republic empire.

They both paid homage to women. Lola 55 is named after Vizcarra’s mother; signature dishes are Lola’s Beans and Lola’s Caesar. Zepeda’s recipes at El Jardín were an earnest tribute to comida abuelita, or the food that grandmas have made for generations. Zepeda had also created a network of women from whom she bought ingredients for her dishes, as well as importing women-made artisan textiles and handiworks to use in the décor.

In their first year, both Lola 55 and El Jardín earned universally positive media reviews as well as a prestigious Bib Gourmand designation from the inaugural Michelin Guide California. They were among only eight San Diego County restaurants to receive the honor, which recognizes “affordable,” “accessible” “hidden gems,” where two courses with a glass a wine or dessert doesn’t exceed $40. That only applied to Lola 55.

In a move away from the inventive cuisine of chef Claudette Zepeda and toward more accessible fare, El Jardín Cantina now focuses on such familiar items as guacamole. But while restaurant does serve the traditional avocado dip, it is also offering creative guacs like grilled rajas with corn and cotija cheese, and guacamole with pomegranate, citrus and grasshopper salt.
In a move away from the inventive cuisine of chef Claudette Zepeda and toward more accessible fare, El Jardín Cantina now focuses on such familiar items as guacamole. But while restaurant does serve the traditional avocado dip, it is also offering creative guacs like grilled rajas with corn and cotija cheese, and guacamole with pomegranate, citrus and grasshopper salt.
(Courtesy photo)

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In fact, despite their many similarities, the differences between Lola 55 and El Jardín went way beyond their curious, identical Bib Gourmand inclusion. As the reasons for the Sept. 9 parties illustrated, these two restaurants have been on very different paths, with Lola 55’s concept exploding and El Jardín’s imploding — Zepeda is gone, the restaurant was shut down for a revamp and then resurrected as the more casual El Jardín Cantina.

Here is a closer look at the divergent directions in which these two restaurants have gone.

Lola 55, in the East Village, is airy, bright and hip.
Lola 55, in the East Village, is airy, bright and hip.
((Sam Wells photo) )

Lola 55

What: A hip, fine-casual eatery that serves nine tacos, including filet mignon, smoked pork carnitas, Baja fish and charred cauliflower, as well as Mexican street corn, pozole verde, made-to-order churros, and grilled corn and cotija ice cream. A full bar and a chic, industrial space complement its urban East Village setting. The recipes and ingredients are based on what Vizcarra’s mother made when he was a boy in Tijuana, but with a modern twist.

Lola 55 owner Frank Vizcarra, in a taco shirt.
Lola 55 owner Frank Vizcarra, in a taco shirt.
(Courtesy photo)

What happened: Vizcarra said Lola 55 exceeded expectations on all levels, exactly matching the forecast for total sales and average check size, being off by just 3 cents (He declined to disclose the specific financials.) Obsessed with quality and consistency, Vizcarra and executive chef Drew Bent are constantly scrutinizing everything coming out of the kitchen, from the 15 hand-crafted sauces and 15 salsas to the beans and pasilla chile salt. “It’s not unusual for us to waste 5 quarts of beans if they’re not right,” Vizcarra said. “I just tossed out two weeks of pasilla salt because it was too smoky. We’re just not going to serve crap.” Keeping your eye firmly planted on the quality prize is essential to a restaurant’s longevity, he said. “All those great reviews we got, there’s nothing on our walls (displaying them). We have to prove ourselves every day to the customer. ... (McDonald’s legendary owner) Ray Kroc used to say, ‘when you’re green, you are growing, when you’re ripe, you begin to rot,’ which means, always be humble, always look at how we can be better. Just because we sell a lot of tacos, doesn’t mean the taco is perfect.” People outside San Diego have noticed, with interested investors calling from New York, Florida, North Carolina and beyond with offers to be part of Lola 55’s business model. “They’re interested in the uniqueness of the product, the uniqueness of the vibe, the innovative concept. It’s different, and they like what they see — there’s a lot of attention to detail,” Vizcarra said. He got choked up when talking about the Michelin Bib Gourmand nod. “That was a big surprise — I didn’t expect that. It was emotional; I started crying. And it came so fast. We created a vision that took a lot of time, and it was always about doing something to fulfill something that was in our hearts, you know, I never expected anything other than just making it real.”

Described by founder Frank Vizcarra as “fine casual,” Lola 55 has an appealing cocktail program. Pictured are the Holy Pinata and Tequila Sling.
Described by founder Frank Vizcarra as “fine casual,” Lola 55 has an appealing cocktail program. Pictured are the Holy Pinata and Tequila Sling.
(Courtesy photo)

Where it’s going: Vizcarra is on pace to open four more Lolas in San Diego over the next four to six years. He has already submitted a letter of intent for two locations — at Fenton Marketplace in Mission Valley and for a site on La Mesa Boulevard in downtown La Mesa. In Mission Valley, Lola 55 could potentially have a newly built, 1,500-square-foot building with a covered space where the food would be cooked outside, “like a true taco stand in Mexico,” he said. Three open patios, totaling 4,500 square feet, an outdoor bar and kid-friendly play area would complete the development. The La Mesa building is 4,700 square feet of empty space, where Lola 55 could have its commissary. “It’s like a hangar, an empty shell with really high ceilings. It’s super cool, with trusses,” Vizcarra said. Though he and his team visited 140-plus taco joints across the U.S. and Mexico, he’s still on a quest “to be the knowledgeable taco people in the country.” He recently flew to Texas to try tacos at a place getting five-star raves. “It was good,” he said, unquestionably unimpressed.

1290 F St., East Village. (619) 542-9155. lola55.com

Lime-marinated coconut ceviche is among the more creative dishes at El Jardín Cantina.
Lime-marinated coconut ceviche is among the more creative dishes at El Jardín Cantina.
(Courtesy photo)

El Jardín Cantina

What — El Jardín: Arguably the most hotly anticipated new restaurant of 2018, the sprawling, 8,000 square foot indoor/outdoor fine-dining Mexican restaurant at Liberty Station had a celebrity chef turning out an ambitious menu of regional dishes that used ancient recipes, indigenous ingredients sourced directly from Mexico and produce grown in the eatery’s jardín, or garden.

What — El Jardín Cantina: Reopened in late August, after a monthlong revamp, as a casual cantina featuring tacos, a trio of guacamoles, margaritas and happy hour specials. Tweaks in the décor include colorful umbrellas and murals on the patio, multi-hued dining room lights and modified booth seating that gives the restaurant a more intimate feel.

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Chef Claudette Zepeda garnered local and national acclaim for her ambitious regional Mexican cuisine. But it wasn’t enough to sustain the restaurant economically.
Chef Claudette Zepeda garnered local and national acclaim for her ambitious regional Mexican cuisine. But it wasn’t enough to sustain the restaurant economically.
(Eduardo Contreras / Union-Tribune)

What happened: The flameout of Zepeda’s tenure at El Jardín is undoubtedly one of the biggest dining stories of 2019. Before the Michelin Bib Gourmand, the former “Top Chef” contestant rode a sustained wave of glowing local and national press — including a rave from The New York Times — and was the only San Diego chef nominated for a 2019 James Beard Award. Everything about El Jardín seemed of-the-moment. It was a gutsy, woman-led restaurant that honored women in the era of #MeToo. It celebrated Mexican cooking beyond Baja, just as the world’s food intelligentsia were declaring it the next hot cuisine. And as the most prominent Mexican fine dining restaurant to open since the 2017 crash and burn of Bracero (where Zepeda had been chef de cuisine), El Jardín was poised to crack San Diego’s rigid refusal to pay more for Mexican. Symbolism and accolades, however, don’t pay the bills. “It was kind of overwhelming feedback that we really need to be more approachable,” said Engman about the restaurant’s overhaul. “It was a risk to do an upscale (Mexican) restaurant in San Diego, and I knew it was risky. This kind of concept wasn’t what Point Loma wanted. … Media is great, but at the end of the day, if you check the (online) reviews and in talking to guests, the majority, 80 percent, continuously said, ‘look we want a place that’s less expensive, we want a place to take our kids, we want it to have more of a margarita focus.’ And the fact is that we weren’t making money — and as the ones putting the money in, after a year it was a decision that had to be made.” Engman said there was a spike in business after The New York Times review, but then it declined again. “That told me something,” he said. “If the food and service was where it needed to be, it would have stayed up.” This reporter, whose review of El Jardín called it “Gutsy regional Mexican from a fearless chef” and named Zepeda the 2018 Chef of the Year, heard a steady drumbeat of nearly identical complaints, none of them about the food. Friends, colleagues and readers bemoaned that even when the dining room was barely full, it took forever to get the food. Courses were delivered out of order. Some people at the table got food whiles others had to wait. Servers would disappear. They had to hunt somebody down to get the check. As delicious as people thought it was, no one said they were eager to go back. And apparently they didn’t.

Elote Dulce at El Jardín Cantina is a delicious sweet corn pudding cake topped with a corn husk meringue, charred cob ice cream and a strawberry salsa.
Elote Dulce at El Jardín Cantina is a delicious sweet corn pudding cake topped with a corn husk meringue, charred cob ice cream and a strawberry salsa.
(Courtesy photo)

Where it’s going: The new, moderately priced, crowd-pleasing menu is devoid of unrecognizable dishes or ingredients, relying heavily on such ubiquitous standards as ceviche, nachos, grilled street corn, carne asada, chicken in mole, carnitas and seven varieties of tacos. There’s a kid’s menu and newly introduced Wednesday night date-night dinners. Which is not to say the menu doesn’t have some creative touches. The Guacamole con Granada puts an innovative spin on the avocado dip, with orange, pomegranate, dry chilies, lime juice and chapulin (grasshopper) salt. The Coco Veracruz ceviche replaces seafood with coconut pieces and the shrimp in the Betabel aguachile is marinated in beet-habanero juice. A standout dessert is the sweet corn bread pudding cake with corn husk meringue and charred cob ice cream. It’s almost a dessert that Zepeda, a former pastry chef, would have made. But the story Zepeda was trying to tell with her cooking has ended and nowhere is that more evident than in the hallway leading to the restroom. Along the wall, gone are the pictures of the Mexican abuelitas and women Zepeda set up in micro-businesses to supply her ingredients. Adorning the wall now is an array of colorful, costumey sombreros.

2885 Perry Road, Liberty Station. (619) 795-2322. eljardincantina.com

The covered patio at El Jardín Cantina.
The covered patio at El Jardín Cantina.
(Courtesy photo)


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