Chef Jimmy Shaw On The Rise Of His Lotería! Grill & New Torta Joint
Chef Jimmy Shaw's blue eyes light up when he talks about Mexican cuisine and especially the complexity of tortas—the Mexican sandwich. His depth of knowledge about tortas only makes it seem fitting that he's just launched another venture, Torta Co. out in the heart of Downtown.
It's lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon at Lotería! Grill in Hollywood. Lively Mexican music is blasting in the restaurant, patrons are chatting excitedly at their tables, and waiters are buzzing in and out the kitchen. A bespectacled and smiling Shaw is sitting at one of the tables in the joint, wearing a white chef's frock with his name printed on it.
It's been quite the journey for Shaw to get to where he is today. His Lotería! Grill stand at Farmer's Market at the Grove has been an L.A. institution for Mexican food since 2002, whipping up complex regional sauces and dishes. He's since expanded his fare to a total of six restaurants throughout the city. He launched the Torta Co. stand alongside a new Lotería! Grill last weekend in Downtown's TASTE FIGat7th; it's a hip open-air food court nestled near the City Target that he shares with the likes of Mendocino Farms and Sprinkles.
The tortas though, are something else. Shaw has put a lot of thought into the bolillo or telera, the Mexican interpretation of the French bread that leaves the outside crusty, but the inside fluffy and not overly bready.
"Before I opened Lotería, I wanted to have tortas on the menu, but I was always disappointed in the bread," Shaw tells LAist. "I was able to figure out how to do the bread. When I felt good about that, then we decided to open this."
There are about a dozen tortas on the Torta Co. menu, including turkey and mole, a kicked-up ham and cheese, vegetarian options, and even dessert (the banana with goat's milk caramel and spiced pecans should not be missed).
"[The way] a well-made torta is built, they’re made slowly [with] all kinds of complex flavors," he says. "It’s more than just a sandwich—it’s a meal in a bun."
Torta milenesa at Torta Co. (Photo courtesy of Torta Co.)
Shaw hails from Mexico City and has always taken it upon himself to bring the complexity of Mexican cuisine to the table. He feels it's unfortunate that Mexican food had been "pigeonholed into being kind of pedestrian and cheap," and because of that, the ingredients aren't always good.
When he opened Lotería! Grill at Farmer's Market, he had a concept in mind: to bring to L.A. the popular idea of getting tacos on a first date. In Mexico City, he explains, tacos go hand-in-hand with weddings, after dancing, and celebrations, but Angelenos wouldn't be caught dead on a date at Del Taco. When he pitched his restaurant idea to the developers at Farmer's Market, he won them over with a film-production-like storyboard depicting the perfect first date. He didn't want the regular beef-and-chicken taco combination plate at his place or even have tacos wrapped in foil, but rather to use regional spices and sauces and showcase them like the fresh fish in a glass sushi display.
His decision to storyboard his pitch comes from his nontraditional path that led him to the restaurant business. Shaw had left Mexico City to study at the University of Pennsylvania. Pesos had greatly devalued soon after he started school there, and what had once already been an expensive education for his father to pay became almost unaffordable. To make ends meet, Shaw worked in restaurant kitchens and eventually became a private chef for a couple— one of them being the man who created the Steadicam and Skycam. He later worked with him in a production company and also catered at events, but eventually set his eyes on Los Angeles for Spanish-language advertising. However, his passion wasn't in advertising, so he took the risk and came up with the concept of Lotería! Grill.
Tacos at Lotería! Grill (Photo courtesy of Lotería! Grill)
The restaurant, named after a nostalgic Mexican dominoes game called Lotería and the meaning of the word which translates to "eureka," was a success less than a year after it opened. Shaw recalls how KCRW's Evan Kleiman interviewed him on her Good Food radio show in 2003.The segment had finished airing at 11:30 a.m. that day, and within minutes, people came up to his stand and asked if he was the guy on the radio. The line had jumped from three people to 50 and stayed that way for the rest of the day.
"It was one of those days where the end of the day we were all just so exhausted," Shaw says. "We couldn’t believe it; it was amazing."
As for the future, Shaw will keep doing what he loves doing most. "I think what inspires me is growing up in Mexico and knowing what amazing cuisine it is. Part of my mission is showing the best of Mexico."