With outposts around the world and a stint on Netflix’s The Final Table, Chef Esdras Ochoa is now bringing Mexican food to Hong Kong. Here, he tells Hive Life how he turned a taco cart into an empire.
Chef Esdras Ochoa, aka ‘The Taco King,’ poured his life savings into his first venture – a taco truck in a quiet corner of LA. From there, he went on to open Salazar, one of the city’s most raved-about restaurants. And now, via a stint working his way to the semifinals on the spectacular Netflix cooking programme The Final Table, he has brought his Mexican food to Hong Kong with his latest opening 11 Westside – a neighbourhood gem just down the road from the Hive on Seven. Delivered with his business partner, legendary bartender and beverage director Daniel Eun, the unexpected move has quickly become one of Asia’s hottest openings. He sat down with us to talk us through his amazing journey.
Within a year of opening his ‘Mexicali Taco & Co’ food truck in a quiet corner of LA during the 2009 recession, chef Esdras Ochoa’s cart ranked number one on Yelp. From there, he went on to debut his bricks and mortar restaurant Salazar, soon voted one of the ‘Best New Restaurants in America 2017 by GQ.’ It was then, in LA’s legendary Korea Town, that Esdras first met Daniel, who also happened to be a hot commodity thanks to his recently opened cocktail bar The Normandie Club. The idea of an international project soon came to mind – though Edras took some convincing. “Just the idea of opening in Asia spooked my mind because I always wanted to visit Asia,” he confesses. “But, I said, ‘Dude, no way! I’m happy with my little taco stand, my little taco shack over here.’ It was mainly just the logistics of it, it was way over my spectrum.”
A visit to Hong Kong swiftly changed his mind. “I’m a big fan of New York, and the best way to put it for me was it was like New York on steroids,” he explains. “Sure enough, that was my biggest reason why I decided to do this project. But above that, it was also just to represent Mexico, represent my culture on the other side of the world,” he explains of the beginnings of 11 Westside.
Asia might seem a long way from Mexicali, Baja California, where Esdras grew up, but there was already a hint of Chinese influence in his cuisine. His widely acclaimed recipe for carne asada uses soy sauce mixed with beer, lime juice, and garlic, to make a “Mexican Ponzu Sauce,” as he calls it, in a display of his unique approach to flavour. Still, visitors to 11 Westside should expect the real deal. “When people come to our spot, I want to them to be like, ‘Oh dude, this is like that time we went to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, this is like the time we went to Rosarito on a family trip eating on the coast of Ensenada,’ those are the flavours I want to portray here in Hong Kong, otherwise there’s not a lot of point in coming this far to change the flavours and experience.”
To deliver that concept to the ever-changing and often transitory Hong Kong dining scene was a task that took considerable effort. “To have that kind of LA flavour, the branding was something that we really wanted to believe in,” explains Daniel. From Esdras’ Queso Fundido, a Monterey Jack cheese fondue served with chips, to his Baja Fish, beer-battered sole with smoke chilli mayonnaise and pico de gallo, everything on the menu is inspired by his Mexican background and LA roots. Still, delivering authentic Mexican food in Hong Kong hasn’t always been an easy – or cheap – exercise. Take something as simple as sourcing limes – a staple in both their drinks and food and an expensive item in Asia. “Our lime juice costs more than our vodka,” Daniel reveals with a smile.
To add to the challenge, it was during the process of opening 11 Westside that Esdras was asked to audition for The Final Table, the huge Netflix cookery show that aired last November. Surprised to be asked, he credits his extraordinary journey as the reason. “My story of starting from nothing, from a humble street stand – I think that got their attention.” Initially, Esdras was reticent, listing the legendary Australian chef Mark Best and Hong Kong’s Michelin-starred chef Shane Osborn as the contestants who intimidated him the most. “I was like, ‘Dude, I make tacos, what do you guys want from me? Just leave me alone,” he says, laughing. But that didn’t stop him making it to the semi-finals alongside his Brazilian friend Rafael Gil, a chef at Ozone at Hong Kong’s Ritz Carlton.
Laidback though he may seem, Chef Esdras Ochoa is clearly a man with huge drive and purpose. Quickly after opening in Hong Kong, he set his sights on India where his restaurant Sanchos opened in Mumbai late last year. “If you asked me three years ago if I would have a restaurant in Hong Kong and India, I would’ve been like, ‘Dude, you’re crazy,” he says. “But, everything’s possible if you work hard, if you have that drive from your dreams, think big, love your work and love the people you work with. You know, they’ll support you and you’ll support them. It just happened that way for me.”