Change is good
Change is good
Photo by Jennifer Fedrizzi

On the Line: Justin Lopez of Stonefire Grill, Part One

Stonefire Grill didn't use to be synonymous with vegan or vegetarian diets. Back in the day, it was definitely more of a meat-and-potatoes destination. Justin Lopez knew that expanding the menu to include these options would help the already successful brand continue to grow. I admit to being skeptic, but open-minded to learning more.

Updating the Stonefire menu to include healthy vegetarian options was risky. How did you convince your mother and aunt that it would pay off? While I think industry observers would think it risky, I really didn't believe our guests would have a problem with it. more than anything, we saw it as another great opportunity to bring a sense of our kitchens to the public. It's how we all cook at home, but they (my mom and aunt) eat healthier than I do. There were lots of fun nights testing our ideas on one another and also seeing how our guests reacted to them. We recognize the need to be as inclusive as possible, and two of their sons (my brother and cousin) have gluten allergies, so these new recipes worked well on that front, too. As a company, we're committed to keeping things exciting and constantly evolving.

What is your beverage of choice? After work, an IPA is my solid go-to. I like staples like Green Flash West Coast IPA. That, and fresh watermelon juice.

Best culinary tip for the home cook: Always say 'yes' to shallots. I learned that one from my younger cousin, Conor, who's a wizard in the kitchen.

Tell us about the new cauliflower dishes and additional protein offerings. The concept is pretty simple: we start with fresh produce delivered every morning and roast the cauliflower with some olive oil and a few pinches of salt. The whole roasted side is perfectly charred and served with fresh lemon, tahini and chopped parsley.

The pita takes the roasted cauliflower, broken apart by hand, and adds some lemon, tahini, chopped tomato, green onion and little bit of tomato juice; it's combined with our spicy cilantro-Serrano sauce-- our Californian take on a classic hot sauce found throughout the Middle East.

The cauliflower salad is a deconstructed version of the pita, and the flavors meld together even more as they begin to cool. The Serrano adds just the right amount of kick. I haven't stopped eating these since we launched them in the spring, and I've been told I can be picky. We've also recently added wild-caught shrimp to the menu, sauteed in fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil and roasted garlic with chili flakes and chopped parsley, served over quinoa.

What do you recommend for first-timers? You can't go wrong with our signature, mesquite-grilled tri tip. It's slow-cooked overnight and finished over a live fire with our BBQ sauce. Add some garlic mashed potatoes and a salad, and we trust you'll be happy. For vegetarians like me, I'll always go for the Golden State Kale with roasted chickpeas and lemon tahini dressing or our roasted cauliflower pita served in bread we've sourced from Jerusalem.

This isn't Justin, but he is one of the minds behind Stonefire's Golden State Kale salad
This isn't Justin, but he is one of the minds behind Stonefire's Golden State Kale salad
Anne Marie Panoringan

Where was your most recent meal? At home. Risotto with white wine, caramelized onions, shallots and garlic, a dash of heavy cream, a good amount of Parmigiano Reggiano and chopped Italian parsley, plus baby arugula with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.

Best culinary tip for the home cook: Always say 'yes' to shallots. I learned that one from my younger cousin, Conor, who's a wizard in the kitchen.

Favorite places to eat: It depends on where I am in Southern California, but my current faves are MB Post, Gracias Madre or just about any hole-in-the-wall taco shop with a good habanero salsa. Sauces pretty much tell the whole story, in my opinion.

Weirdest customer request: We have this carrot cake. It's my grandmother's recipe that we prepare every morning in the restaurants. Seriously good. We had a long-time guest move to the East coast, and asked if we could overnight the whole cake because he was craving it so badly [Editor's Note: Once they calculated the cost of shipping a perishable item, it didn't happen.]

Where does Stonefire want to be in five years? We'll still be in Southern California, and we'll continue to evolve and expand, but we'll remain true to our commitment to quality, flavor and offering guests a satisfying meal. We tend to stick to our guns when we believe in something.

What made you decide to join the family business? When I finished grad school, the economy was still tanking and I wasn't excited by going to work for anyone. An entrepreneurial spirit is all I've ever known. It's what I was raised on, and both my family and I recognized a need within Stonefire Grill that made a lot of sense for everyone. At that time, the business was thriving with very little structured marketing, so I started re-designing the website while I was finishing my masters thesis to test the waters. I guess I passed.

Give us an example of strong customer service. In the fast casual environment, service can (sometimes) go out the window, but we've always seen it as an integral component of our company. Recently, I was on a trip to Thailand with my uncle, and we were washing our hands before dinner. Quickly, a towel was handed to both of us by a restaurant employee. After thanking him, his response was simply, "Happy to serve". This really stuck with us, and it's since become our internal mantra at Stonefire Grill. Success is in the details.

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