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Monday, November 21, 2011

Q&A With Nopalito's Gonzalo Guzman and Jose Ramos, Part 1: Everything From Scratch

Posted By on Mon, Nov 21, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Nopalito's co-chefs, Jose Ramos (left) and Gonzalo Guzman - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • Nopalito's co-chefs, Jose Ramos (left) and Gonzalo Guzman

Gonzalo Guzman and Jose Ramos, co-chefs of Nopalito, both grew up in Mexico -- in Veracruz and Guanajuato, respectively -- but ended up as cooks in San Francisco through very different paths. Before working together at Nopa, Guzman climbed the ranks at some of the city's most respected fine-dining establishments while Ramos spent many years in Texas working Tex-Mex restaurants before arriving in San Francisco.

It's their diverse backgrounds, however, that they call upon. Read on to find out how they divvy the work, create new recipes, and just how much corn they're really going through to make those incredible, handmade tortillas.

In part two of the Q&A, appearing tomorrow, Guzman and Ramos will talk about Nopalito's new Inner Sunset location, and in Wednesday's part three they'll share a favorite recipe.

SFoodie: Tell me about meeting for the first time.

JR: I started as a line cook at Nopa, putting food up that most of the time was already prepared. I wanted to learn how to actually make the food, so I asked to be moved to prep. Gonzalo was the sous-chef during the day, and prep was done in the morning. We'd work together, and then in the afternoon we'd start talking about what to put up for the staff to eat.

What were some of the things you were making for staff meals?

Nopalito's esquite tostado. - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • Nopalito's esquite tostado.

GG: We would take fish scraps from the restaurant and make ceviche, or use leftover pork and go buy tortillas. We were just playing, making simple food, nothing serious. The idea of this restaurant started kind of like a joke. Laurence [Jossel, Nopalito co-owner] kept saying we should open a Mexican restaurant. Then all of a sudden he was serious.

Did any of those staff meals make it on to your menu?

Both: Carnitas...

GG: Tamales, ceviche...

JR: Caldo, pozole.

GG: Obviously the presentation is different. Then we were just playing with flavors and whatever we had. Now we're big on consistency and writing things down so they taste the same from day to day.

Did any of these recipes come from your families?

GG: Not directly, but part of every dish is from my mother, or someone's mother, in some small way. But we're not focusing on Veracruz or Guanajuato or any specific state in Mexico. We're just trying to build dishes with Mexican flavors. Home-style food, like you see at the markets of Mexico.

What kind of research went into making your menu?

JR: At the beginning, Laurence and I went to Mexico for a couple of weeks. We planned on going to six states but only made it to Mexico City, Toluca, and Michoacán.

Why did you choose those cities?

JR: Each state in Mexico pretty much has its own cuisine, and these are big cities with a lot of food. I had a list from old co-workers in Texas telling me where to go, and before I moved to California I took four months vacation in Mexico and traveled, focusing on street food. I went to taquerías and markets and to where families open their doors for food - comida corrida, they call it. So when I was going with Laurence I already knew where I wanted to take him.

Was Mexico where you guys got the idea for Nopalito to make everything from scratch?

GG: The idea of making everything from scratch - like our queso fresco, our chorizo and our tortillas - is at the heart of what we are doing. No one is really doing it here, even now - not they way we do it. We do every step of the process to turn dry corn into masa, and from that we make our own tortillas. We have someone making tortillas 16 hours a day.

Is this something either of you had done before?

GG: In the small town I come from, and probably where Jose comes from, too, there is one place in the middle of town where they have something called molino, which is a corn grinder. In the morning, everybody brings their little buckets to the place to have their corn ground into masa. We're trying to focus on that idea and do it the same way, but we use about 100-150 pounds of dry corn every day. It was hard to scale it for the restaurant. We had to play around with the machine, play around with the corn, and we really had to pull from our own experience in restaurants.

Every dish on the menu except for the salad has masa involved in some way. Even the pozole has masa in it. Instead of using cornstarch to thicken it up we use masa -- it's the old way to do it.

JR: We are lucky because our machine can do things like what they do in a Mexican home. Just like in the towns where we're from, we cook the corn, bring it to a boil, turn it off and let it sit overnight with lime salt.

GG: The next day you wash it so the skin comes off, and because we had no electricity we would hand-grind the corn to make masa. When you go to Mexican restaurants, they buy tortillas from somewhere else, or if they make their tortillas they buy the masa. They don't follow the whole process, and I think that's the difference between us and other Mexican restaurants.

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie.

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