Ryan Garlitos of Irenia Restaurant dreamed of opening his own place someday. He just didn't expect it to happen so soon.
He and his girlfriend, Sarah Mosqueda, had been doing itinerant supper clubs, starting on a whim. "I was making dinner for some friends one night in my buddy's loft," he recalls. "At one point in the evening, someone joked that we should do this again for other people—and charge them to eat." About two months later, his first pop-up served Filipino food to about 20 guests.
It snowballed from there. The events went from Mosqueda's back yard to people's houses to a rented space when their guest list ballooned to 100. "We didn't try to push it or market it," says Garlitos, who's still in awe. "It was word of mouth."
When the North Left in Santa Ana closed, Garlitos and Mosqueda knew they had to strike. "At the time, it felt right," he says.
The main motivating factor was that he knew mainstream attention around Filipino food was growing rapidly, and the two didn't want to do it after the buzz died down. More important, they wanted to set the standard. "We wanted to be the one that everybody who came after would be compared to." When Irenia opened in May of last year, it was to instant and critical acclaim. Jonathan Gold wrote in the Los Angeles Times that it "cares as much about feeding the appetites of its grandmothers and uncles as it does about making the scene."
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For Garlitos—who was born in 1984 in Anaheim, grew up in Fullerton, and came of age in Yorba Linda—cooking started out as just a hobby, something he picked up while helping his grandmother Irenia prepare Filipino meals. He never thought of it as a career choice. Since most of his family was in the medical field, he followed the biology track at UC Irvine. But it wasn't clicking for him after two years. On the eve of applying to business school, a conversation with his sister made him realize it'd be cool to open a restaurant. "Well, maybe you should learn how to cook, then," she told him. He enrolled in the Art Institute of California the next day.
After a year at the culinary school, he went on to become Slapfish's first employee. Then, when Carlos Salgado needed a new cook for his then-food truck Taco Maria, Garlitos answered the ad. He knew he could learn a lot from Salgado, and Garlitos feels he crammed at least double the amount of years of on-the-job training under the James Beard-nominated chef. To this day, he credits Taco Maria—where Garlitos spent four years and became the sous chef—as the most important part of his culinary education.
It's also where he met Mosqueda, who was a server. Now at their own restaurant, they say they're still learning new things every day—not just coming up with recipes, but figuring out all aspects of running a restaurant. The couple's working mantra is "Everything has a solution."
Garlitos feels blessed about everything. "All these things fell into place," he says, "and it became a little leap of faith."