On the Line: Chef Ivan Rogelio Calderon of Taco Mesa Tortilleria Organica and Cafe

I’ve been to a Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa over the years, but the Tortilleria Organica and Cafe in Orange taught me there’s always room to grow and improve upon an already lasting concept. Chef Ivan was kind enough to show me around the busy kitchen, explaining all the updates he’s made to the brand.

Explain to me your choice to close the Taco Mesa location next door and go in a different culinary direction.
I’ve had the evolution of Taco Mesa conceptualized for over a year, and I was beginning to scout for other locations. My lease at the old location was coming up, and after speaking with the landlord, I learned that the larger space next door would soon be available. It was opportune timing, and the space was the right fit. Our loyal customers wouldn’t have to go far.

What has been the most difficult thing about opening multiple locations?
The more we grow, the more difficult it becomes to maintain consistency and standards, but never does it become less important. We work hard to create culture here by empowering the staff with values. What they do at work is important, and we hold them accountable to that.

For those not familiar, please discuss the differences between Taco Mesa, Taco Rosa and the Tortilleria Organica and Cafe.
Taco Mesa was created by demand of the consumer. In 1992, people really wanted healthier Mexican cuisine at value-oriented price points. Now, 25 years later, we’re still bringing Orange County healthy Mexican cuisine at affordable price points. We have locations in Orange, Costa Mesa, Ladera Ranch and Mission Viejo.

Taco Rosa is the upscale sister concept to Taco Mesa. Their menus see more influence from Central Mexico.

Taco Mesa Tortilleria Organica and Cafe is the next evolution of the Taco Mesa brand. We’ve expanded the concept not only by adding the GMO-free tortilleria, but with our bakery, organic grab-and-go and the ModBar.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
If you’re going to cook beans, you need to bring them to a boil and let them simmer for a long time. The longer they simmer, the more flavor they’ll retain.

Where do you like to eat?
Anywhere with family and friends, of course! I enjoy eating with them at their homes. It’s how I grew up. Spending time with my three sons, daughter and grandchildren around the table is how I recharge. This is an important part of my culture.

What is one stereotype about the restaurant industry, and whether it’s true.
You know the stereotype that says the restaurant industry works when others play? That is true. However, for me I love what I do. So working often feels like play.

We would like to know more about the ModBar you’re using, as well as the pastry selection.
ModBar was introduced to me by my son Nicholas, who lives in New York. After doing some research, I fell in love with it. I wanted to add a coffee bar, because my father and mother met at Copa de Leche, a cafe in Mexico City. Growing up in Mexico City, I was always surrounded by fine European-influenced pastries.

Tell me about your water filtration system.
Using quality ingredients results in quality product. That’s why it’s important to us that our water is filtered, stripped of heavy metals, salts and chemicals and recharged with electrolytes and nutrients. We take pride in the quality of our ingredients— including our water.

Let’s talk about your start in the restaurant industry.
I began working at El Torito in Marina del Rey as a bus boy in 1970. As a teenager, I worked my way through college, moving upward within the company— learning to keep books and eventually earning myself a role in management working underneath Founder Larry Cano. It was my mission to elevate El Torito’s operating standards. I helped lead the chain in opening several locations across the United States, eventually earning a position as regional manager.

I’m wondering about your choice in art— specifically the painting at the entrance.
On my old business card, there was an old photo of my mom and dad. I’ve always been proud of my parents. My mom is an angel to me, and when she passed, I found this beautiful photo of her. I knew I wanted to honor her with the new brand somehow. I shared the photo with a local artist who commissioned the piece for me.

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
I always start with a ground and pressed juice made with kale, apple, celery, parsley, lime and other greens. Then I’ll have oatmeal with a little almond milk, raisins and almonds. If I want to spoil myself, I’ll have an egg torta from one of the restaurants.

I want to know more about the tortillas and the type of corn you use.
Making masa is an art that has been passed on to us from our ancestors. Masa products, like tortillas and tamales, are made from corn, making it a staple of Mexican cuisine. Without good, healthy corn, you can’t have good Mexican food.

Before we opened the tortilleria and began making our masa, we sourced GMO-free corn through La Fortaleza. The founder, Ramiro Ortiz, was very supportive when I told him I would be producing my own tortillas. Knowing that I wanted to source from someone local, Ramiro connected me with Rovey Specialty Grains, our GMO-free corn supplier in Rancho Cucumonga. We use white and blue corn to make our masa. Soon, we’ll be infusing it with ancient grains, herbs and spices.

Who are some of the other local vendors you source from?
Lisa David from Orange Home Grown, our local farmers market, has been instrumental in connecting me with local farmers. I have a great relationship with Adam Navidi of Future Foods Farms. He supplies us with aquaponic lettuces from his farm in Brea. We also source local vegetables from Black Sheep Farms in Riverside. For years, we’ve trusted Ingardia Bros. Produce to provide us with sustainable seafood, and Sun Meat Company to provide us with humanely-raised proteins.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
Coming to the states in 1961 as a child. My father had been working here as a bracero. When he finally saved enough money, he was able to legally bring us to this country. He flew our family in from Mexico and bought a home for us. There are no words to express that feeling.

Favorite meal growing up:
My mom was a wonderful cook. The most memorable meal was her Torta de Carne. They were shredded beef patties bonded with egg whites, deep fried and topped with tomato sauce.

Tell me about your involvement in Save Our Youth.
When we started Taco Mesa 25 years ago, I had a couple of guests, Roy Alvarado and Bill Turpit, who worked with a non-profit called Todos Hermanos. They were dedicated to fighting gang violence. I really respected the work these men did, so I would buy them tacos whenever they came in. One day, they asked me to join SOY. Several city officials and civic leaders came together to build a center that would provide underserved kids with a place to hang out, in lieu of turning to gang involvement. Today, SOY is widely supported by our community.

Last thing you looked up online:
My son just graduated from UC Berkeley in San Francisco. After attending his graduation, I was trying to download Lyft. I heard it’s better than the competition.

Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I play a little bit of guitar. I love soccer and have coached for many years.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
You will succeed when you wholeheartedly give yourself to your beliefs, and have the courage to put it all out there.

What would you like to be doing if you weren’t in this business?
I’m passionate about health and healing. I’d like to do something to help people by educating them about the natural healing methods like nutrition, meditation and natural detoxification that have made a positive impact on my life.

Taco Mesa Tortilleria Organica & Cafe is located at 3533 E Chapman Ave, Orange, (714) 633-3922; www.tacomesa.com.

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