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jimmy shaw of loteria grill--we have a winner!
by Andrea Rademan
Jimmy Shaw was a fast-tracking ad exec with two degrees from an Ivy League college until the fates tempted him with memories of his mother’s tacos. When he opened his first restaurant, he named it Lotería Grill after the game of chance that is sometimes referred to as Mexican bingo. “The name may not be familiar to Americans,” he says, “but it screams Mexico to a Mexican.“
Shaw’s own name, and his ash blonde hair and blue-green eyes, are courtesy of his Scotch-Mexican and American grandfathers. “At home, we spoke English and Spanish as one big language,” he says, “so I learned both.”
He also learned a strong work ethic and became a personal chef while he was still in school. Every day, his employers would tell him what they wanted for dinner and, having had no formal kitchen training, he would call his mom for advice. “She’s a great, generous entertainer and cook — ‘Just throw a little water into the soup,’ she’d say, ‘There’s always room for one more.’”
After school, Shaw found a job at a Spanish language ad agency in Los Angeles, “the second largest Mexican City in the world.” He shared a house with four guys and did the cooking. “My favorite time was sobremesa,” he says, “when we’d sit around after the meal, basking in the comfort and warmth of good food and great friends.”
But after 17 years of “making too much money to quit” he was offered a high-level position that brought on an epiphany. “I realized that the job called for someone who would love it,” he says, “and I knew that wasn’t me.”
He left the agency to work from home and joined the local neighborhood council. There, a friend introduced him to Hank Hilty, head of the historic Farmers’ Market, as “an ad exec who hated his job and had a one-page plan for a Mexican restaurant that would put tacos front and center, like a sushi bar.“ Three months later a Mexican food stall became available and in 2003 Shaw debuted his first Lotería Grill. “It was business school by fire,” he says, “but when the stars line up, you ride the wave.”
Six years later he rode another wave to his first brick and mortar location, on Hollywood Blvd., followed by others in Studio City, Westlake Village, and the Promenade in Santa Monica. He also has a Mexican sandwich concept, The Torta Company, at 7th & Fig, an upscale food court in Downtown LA. and two Loterías at LAX.
“Every Thanksgiving I give thanks to Mr. Hilty,” says Shaw, and customers give thanks for Lotería Grill’s holiday menu of soups (cream of chile poblano, puree of pumpkin, and creamed corn), mains (marinated turkey; cheese-stuffed chiles; cheese-stuffed chile poblano with apples and nuts; mushroom enchiladas), sides (toasted corn off the cob; jalapeno corn bread; sweet corn tamal stuffing; roasted fingerling potatoes with chile poblano; mashed roasted sweet potatoes al chipotle; stuffed squash) and desserts (pumpkin cake with cane sugar sauce and ice cream; almond-apple tart with goat’s milk caramel; and guava bar with coconut cream).
Shaw, whose cooking is Mex-Mex, not Tex-Mex or Cali-Mex, points out that the core dishes of a typical American Thanksgiving meal are staples of the Mexican table. “Turkey was always the main protein in the Americas, along with squash, pumpkin and corn.” For centuries, Mexico was the midpoint of trade between Asia and the Americas but, ironically, this ancient cuisine is in its infancy in the U.S. “Although Mexican food has joined Italian and Chinese as the nation’s three most popular cuisines, it’s still in its ‘spaghetti phase,’” says Shaw. “It will get to its pasta phase.”
Contrary to common belief, Mexico’s most famous dish, the taco, isn't necessarily fast food. “Other than at bus stations or airports, there is no ‘fast food’ there,” says Shaw, who fills his tantalizing tacos with chicharrón en salsa verde (fried pork rinds stewed in spicy tomatillo sauce), chicharrón de queso (grated cheese), even fish, rabbit or squid. Like his soft albondigas (meatballs) in tomato and chipotle sauce, they are a staple of the Distrito Federal, where it is customary to spike micheladas (cold beer with fresh lime juice and ice cubes) with hot sauce, Worcestershire, and Maggi seasoning.
Among an endless parade of other Lotería specialties are cochinita pibil (pork roasted in banana leaves), the classic sopa de fideo (vermicelli), chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips in red chile sauce, served with sour cream, salsa, and guacamole), and tequila or Mexican chocolate ice creams.
Beverages rate equal attention, especially the vast array of tequilas, unusual margaritas (jalapeno, tarmarindo, mango) and even the café de olla (coffee brewed with cinnamon).
Shaw strives to give his guests el futuro antojo (the future craving), an experience so strong that when they go home they can’t wait to repeat it.
He needn’t worry: his future is in the cards.
Article first published in thelatinkitchen.com.