Sitting down for the first time with Jesse Gomez, it’s clear he belongs in the hospitality industry. Warm and relaxed, he easily fields questions while digging into an order of Chilaquiles at Aro Latin in South Pasadena. Even with a laid-back demeanor as he brunches on a Saturday, he’s unmistakably the same savvy restaurateur who owns six of his own Mexican cuisine locales across greater Los Angeles.
He looks around, takes in the space, then leans in with a laugh– “I’d want this place one day. Great space.”
While joking, the assessment is almost a reflex for the 43-year-old. Gomez has had expansion on his mind for the past year. Just last week, he and his long-time partner Chef José Acevedo revealed plans for a new Pasadena location for their highly successful Mercado concept, due in January. Their authentic Mexican menu, executed with modern finesse, continues to attract diners in Santa Monica, near the Grove, and Hollywood.
This big news comes right on the heels of a September overhaul of their Studio City space, turning the second of their elevated mariscos restaurants, Maradentro, into a Mercado Taqueria.
“I’ve always considered Mercado our strongest concept. It’s a growth vehicle for us. The new Pasadena location means people from South Pasadena, San Marino, Monrovia, and Arcadia might be willing to come out and try our food.”
He’s clear about where he sees Mercado fitting in.
“My intention is to be one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city.”
Long before Gomez knew he would build a career carefully tweaking menus and signing on new spaces, he was a student at South Pasadena Middle and High School. Class of 1992 at SPHS, Gomez played basketball and had his mind set on being a lawyer.
His family owned the beloved community eatery El Arco Iris in Highland Park, where he and friends would head after practice and games to grab free food. His mother, Angie Montes, worked tirelessly to run the restaurant, and while Gomez occasionally bused tables next to waiters who had watched him grow up, he was told to focus his efforts on schoolwork, rather than the kitchen. “My mother knew how hard that life was. She wanted me to focus on my education and do something more prestigious.”
Gomez went on to attend Princeton, majoring in Psychology, and then returned to the West Coast to begin law school at Loyola. He took his first finals, saw good results, and- just before taking his very last exam- he called his mom and broke the news. His passion was in restaurants.
“I couldn’t have worked in an office. For that life, you spend so much time paying dues, helping make other people rich. I wanted to help people in a different way. My heart has always been in Mexican food, but it was also in the process of managing them, knowing what made them tick.”
By 2009, Gomez opened his first restaurant. Yxta Cocina Mexicana flung open its doors in Downtown, drawing customers to Skid Row at a time when no one could imagine the future hubbub of today’s trendy Arts District.
With this first concept, Gomez established a reputation for a darker, sexier way of doing authentic Mexican. Without compromising on tradition, Gomez and Acevedo -who is from Guanajuato, Mexico- knew that better protein and sleeker aesthetics would connect with guests, even in a saturated market of low-cost Mexican food. He counts on Angelenos seeing the value in ingredients and recognizing the nuanced complexities of Mexican cooking.
Gomez now lives in Hollywood, riding his motorcycle and traveling to favorite destinations like Mexico and Seattle in his free time. Even as he spends each day continuing to grow his restaurants, he says he often jokes about his dream retirement.
“I always say I’ll open a little bar with a few stools and three tables, where I bartend and clear tables, and José does the cooking.”
At his core is an unshakable appreciation for helping bring joy to people, in the way he knows best.
“I can remember being twelve years old, sitting in El Arco while my friends laughed and ate burritos and having this feeling of pride, that I was in some way a part of it. When you come into our restaurants, I may not get to talk to you, but because I helped plan the service, collaborated on the menu, chose the paint color – I was a piece of that experience. That’s a good feeling.”
Jessica Moog is a 2013 graduate of South Pasadena High, where she was managing editor of Tiger newspaper. Now a freelance journalist, she recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in creative writing.