Sometimes the best food concepts are the simplest. But that does not always mean they are the easiest to recreate. They sometimes require years of cooking experience that leads to intuitive kitchen mastery, and translating that homepsun touch into a quick-service setting is not a trick easily pulled off.
“When somebody's grandmother has a recipe and she grabs some salt or some seasoning, she's not taking out a teaspoon or a mixing bowl. They just know by heart and by eye,” comedian George Lopez says. “As a Latino, that is what I find the most satisfying in someone having an experience. My grandmother never taught me how to make tortillas because she never wrote it down. Either you watched her or you didn't learn.” Many of the menu items at George Lopez's Chingon Kitchen (located in the San Manuel Casino in Highland, California) are Lopez family recipes, including the carnitas, guacamole, and tortilla mix.
Michael Zislis, of The Zislis Group Inc., first spoke with Lopez a year or so ago about creating a Mexican quick-serve restaurant. The former's experience spans brewpubs to fine dining and includes developing the growing Rock & Brews chain with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons from KISS. At the time, Zislis politely told Lopez, who had recipes and samples ready to go, that he was busy. But once San Manuel Casino converted their bingo parlor into a rock-and-roll themed casino, Lopez's concept clicked with them. Now paired up, Lopez and Zislis' team came up with their own Mexican-themed designs for the interior, and Lopez brought in graffiti artists he knew. The 150-seat, 6,000-square-foot San Manuel location opened on September 11, 2017.
Lopez was involved in the business from the start, renting a home in Manhattan Beach right next to the Zislis Group offices as the Chingon Kitchen concept was developed. He wanted to keep things simple but flavorful in the spirit of his grandmother's approach to cooking. That became echoed in the business environment. “The great thing about Michael and his company is that they do everything in-house, so when I went to the meeting I had everybody in the same room,” Lopez says. “I didn't have to have five other meetings with people, all the designers and all the creators.”
Chingon Kitchen's interior features a colorful blend of elements, including Day of the Dead and wrestling-themed décor. Zislis describes the restaurant's look as “Mexico barrio meets LA with the open air like an old building in Mexico. A lot of brick, steel, rust, urban art, chandeliers made out of Patron bottles, and old tequila displays—like a Chipotle on steroids.”
They have chosen to keep the menu simple and focus on high quality ingredients, including carne asada and rotisserie chicken. Food is prepared and assembled in front of customers. A tortilla machine makes fresh flour corn tortillas behind the glass as people walk up to order. “We have carnitas, which everybody loves,” Zislis says. “We have pork, chicken, and beef, and we have a vegetarian set-up. We want to be cognizant of that.” The items one can fill include a bowl, taco, burrito, Cabo stuffed potato, or Mexican Caesar salad. They have Mexican sodas and beers, and there is an adjacent Tequila Lounge as well.
“The quality is exceptional,” Zislis says of the Chingon Kitchen cuisine. “This will be the place where you charge a dollar more because the meat is good, the cheese is good, the produce is good, and I just think today people have a more refined palate and will pay a dollar more for good.” The main menu items average $7 and the sides are $1–$2 each. The company went for the top 200 tequila brands for their Tequila Lounge, and they also mixed in some unusual margarita flavors as well such as blackberry sage, raspberry mint, and pineapple jalapeno.
Both Lopez and Zislis are pleased with the San Manual Casino partnership and feel it was a great launching pad for the Chingon Kitchen brand. Zislis reports that he is already scouting out three more units in other casinos, followed by three street locations in Los Angeles, which would offer beer and wine. “The tequila bar will make it into all the casinos,” he explains, adding that he is also speaking with some NFL stadiums that will skip the tequila as “they're just looking for the stand-up with Mexican food.”
Lopez and Zislis say they have received positive feedback about the food and drink at Chingon Kitchen. “We nailed it on both fronts,” Zislis says. “It's a perfect brand to do in casinos right now because the way gaming has come around for native tribes everybody is starting to do their re-models. Their mandate is it has to be the best food so people will want to eat it and come to the casino and gamble. That's what we've been able to execute with those Rock & Brews and George Lopez's Chingon Kitchen.”
“Last time I was at Chingon, there was a couple there [waiting as] I was doing an interview in the restaurant,” Lopez says. “When I walked out, they said, ‘Hey man, you're messing with our schedule. We come every day at 11 and now we're behind 45 minutes.’ That was awesome.”
For Lopez, it all goes back to simplicity. He recalls how he tried to get people interested in roasted corn with mayonnaise a few years ago. Watching a man in a park sell corn with mayonnaise got his attention when he saw how people were crazy for the food. “My initial concept [for Chingon Kitchen] was almost like the concept of ‘Night at the Roxbury,’” says Lopez. “To bring the outside inside.”
The veteran actor and comedian says that his heart is in his fresh restaurant endeavor. “If my grandmother would've eaten here, I would've liked her to tell me hers is better,” Lopez says. With a chuckle, he adds: “But not by much.”