On the Line: Sam Ruiz of Cafe Calacas

Breakfast all day!
Breakfast all day!
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

While most of my line of questioning is pretty straightforward, I do try and tailor questions to include a few specific to my subject. This was definitely the case with Sam Ruiz. Now before you think that what I asked was insensitive (and you'll know the question when you read it), understand that subjects often provide a bio referencing some of what I end up asking them. Plus, they reserve the right to decline to respond to a question. Now that the disclaimer is out there, let's discuss Cafe Calacas!

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Mexico City. My father decided California was a good change for us in 1995, so we immigrated easily, as my grandfather was California-born and served in the armed forces.

Give us examples of how your menu is different from neighboring concepts in DTSA. 
Our menu is Mexico City "street" food with a twist. We have a good variety from breakfast to lunch and dinner. A full espresso bar, and even a juice bar. The most important value is that it's for our locals. It's affordable, fresh and fast.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Variety. We can find anything we want to eat in this county.

One food you can't live without:
Meat. I need my meat! Any cut, any preparation. Just can't be absent. Without a good cut, a meal isn't complete.

The story behind Cafe Calacas was that it wasn't always a cafe. Can you please elaborate?
Cafe Calacas was a Mexican novelty item store and event center, founded by the respected Rudy Cordova. Thanks to him, such cultural, influential events like "Noche de Altares" in DTSA came to existence. 

He opened a deli at the time (now Calacas) next to his cultural shop. Once the foodie revolution came to Downtown Santa Ana, he knew he needed to reinvent the concept. That's how I came into play. I had done Euro Caffe, and (knowing I had a proud Hispanic background) he chose me to be the new managing partner at Cafe Calacas. I brought my cousins Luis Anaya and Frank Farias, because with my other shops keeping me busy, I knew I needed a strong backbone team. They were exactly what I needed.

I redid the menu and we redid the decor of the place in 26 days. Today, looking back, it amazes me how we did it. I wanted to keep the integrity of what Calacas always had been, but in a modern way where people today (Latino or not) could connect.

We hear there's expansion plans; Where are you headed?
Orange area. Exact location is a surprise, but soon enough. I will not rest until we have a location in Los Angeles as well. It's a promise I made myself and my father, and I don't break promises.

You were studying to enter law school. What was the turning point that caused you to choose the restaurant industry?
When we opened Euro Caffe I knew I liked seeing people get their day made with good food and great coffee. I knew at that point I wanted to replicate that as much as possible in many places across SoCal.

How are you associated with Euro Caffe?
I am co-founder/owner. I started that with my girlfriend and her sister. We wanted a true European coffeehouse. Small, cozy, that serves meals that surprise you. Our food there is unique, and I have yet to find a place that can do crepes like we do. They are Greek, but we wanted to fit Europe in a cup, and I like to think we've hit the nail on the head with that concept. The third location opens this month in Bella Terra, and it's crazy to see where we have come in four years. I'm very proud of us. [Editor's Note: They opened over the weekend.]

Keeping it real in Downtown Santa Ana
Keeping it real in Downtown Santa Ana
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

How did you meet your girlfriend?
I met my girlfriend in high school. We went to Fountain Valley High School. We were also pretty much neighbors growing up. She lived next door to my uncle's house where I spent most of my summers as a kid.

Favorite places to eat.
I really like what Andrew has done with Slapfish. I eat there a lot. And of course, have to head to Andy and Scott's Afters for dessert.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
If you own a restaurant, money rains and it's "easy" because you have employees. It's as true as politicians being honest.

What's your favorite childhood memory?
Going to the OC Fairgrounds swap meet with my dad. Looking back, it has really taught me how simple things made him happy. It's something I now strive for. Simplicity in life.

You mentioned your father considered you "white washed". Why do you think he thought that? How does that affect how you run your business?
We came to Orange County from Mexico City when I was six. Changing cultures isn't easy for a kid coming into himself. When added the new American cultural influence, puberty was a tough time for me. Many times I was ousted for not being born here, even by Latinos who were. Playground bullying can mold who you become. 

I felt he thought I was "white washed" because he saw the obvious difference in my childhood in Orange County compared to Mexico City. In America, you don't play soccer in the alley or do "posadas" during Christmastime. You play a lot of video games, speak English all the time and sang Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer. 

I feel it has affected my business in a positive way. It's allowed me to really connect to my childhood and my culture, and present it in Orange County. Some of the food and drinks that we have done at Calacas haven't been done before. When have you seen a Gansito frapp at Starbucks? We turned the classic Pambazo from Mexico City into a lobster roll that made people come all the way from San Diego just to eat one. 

If it's changed my business or affected the way we run it, it has been in a positive way. It has become a way for us to teach Orange County about our culture. We have non-Hispanic lawyers, council members and judges ordering cafe de olla and chilaquiles. Think about that.

When you're not in the kitchen, what are you doing?
Shooting rounds. Golf and rifles are huge hobbies of mine right now.

Last thing you looked up online:
Stock information and upcoming gun laws.

Favorite meal growing up:
My favorite meal has to be Chicken Milanese and potato pancakes.

Tell us about your sister. How does she influence the cuisine at Cafe Calacas?
My sister is my food Wikipedia. She really speeds up my creative process. When you have a person that has opened multiple restaurants and worked in Michelin-rated kitchens, questions are easily answered. A good cook knows he doesn't know everything. Asking for help isn't a weakness, it's understanding you can learn every day. When you stop learning, you stop growing.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
You can't please everyone. I used to always put myself second to have everyone be happy. That never works, and you always end up leaving yourself til the end. Now I just focus on what I need to do.

What other skills do you have outside of the kitchen?
Music is a hidden passion for me. Piano, guitar, drums, bass or cello. I can play for hours and never get bored. I also love photography, which as helped in today's social media market with our food.

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Chilaquiles or ricotta pancakes. You know what they say, opposites attract.

Tell us about your collaboration with The Barrel Room.
I met Joe and Linda Castro when we redid Calacas. They saw I was hungry for progress in DTSA, and so were they. They gave me a chance to do the menu and help launch it. It's a great place, and they mean well for the area. That I can always support; good people who want to see where they grew up get better.

What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
Either law or movie production. I like creating things, but also enjoy building things. Who knows? Maybe building sets in LA or buying coffee from local coffee shops on my way into courthouses.

Cafe Calacas is located at 324 W 4th St, Santa Ana, (714) 662-2002; www.cafecalacas.com.


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