California residents are blessed with access to seemingly endless options for regional Mexican cuisine, so it can be challenging to stand out. But by using rare cooking techniques, uncommon ingredients, and applying a fine dining background, COOL!NARIA is quickly emerging as a fan favorite among the pack (and always welcoming more loyal fans onto the bandwagon).
Tell us about your background and how you got started in the food industry.
I was born and raised in Mexico City, so from the get-go, I was immersed in one of the most deliciously influential, yet gastronomically diverse cultures in the world. I worked for a fine dining restaurant in my younger years, sometimes upwards of 16 hours per day, prepping food, mastering culinary techniques, and learning the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. It was hard work, but invaluable experience that truly kicked off my lifelong love affair with cooking.
Eventually, I began to develop complete menus, and worked at a Top 20 restaurant in the world, which strengthened my belief in using top-notch ingredients rather than sticking to traditions. My curiosity always seemed to get the best of me, as I was constantly trying new things in the search of something different and wild. I played around with different techniques, and even dabbled in other cultures, like Peruvian and French cuisine for a short while.
In 2007, I officially started out on my own, bringing my eclectic experiments to the Bay Area. Alongside my business partner Elizabeth Rueda, I’ve since then created a variety of culinary concepts, most recently including COOL!NARIA. We had never done a food truck before, and our goal was to offer something more than just another taco truck.
What business obstacles have you faced as you transitioned from fine dining to mobile food?
The main goal of COOL!NARIA is simple: Bring fine dining outside without compromising quality or flavor. Everything we do is a little bit more gourmet than what you might expect from a mobile food vendor, and that’s what we’re most proud of. However, being limited to a small kitchen within a truck and finding ingredients that travel well does present a few challenges.
Since nothing we serve is prepared in bulk and nearly everything is made from scratch, some items do not translate well to a mobile format — guests may not be okay with waiting 10+ minutes when ordering a quick bite from a food truck, so we’ve had to streamline our approach a bit.
We don’t use things like pre-made salsa or canned tomatoes — it’s just not in our philosophy, and that will never change. But the challenge of taking our show on the road has allowed us to get even more adventurous and experimental with our menu, and has led to some really delicious discoveries. For example, our beans are not just refried — we whip it into a foam using a specialized cooking technique. We try to sprinkle fine dining into our recipes as much as possible.
The proof really is in the pudding — or maybe it’s in our hangar steak tacos and seasonal ceviche, actually. You’ll notice the effort that goes into each and every one of our dishes. Just because it’s mobile food doesn’t mean that it can’t be fancy and taste great, too…that’s really what it comes down to for us.
What has been the most exciting part about participating at Presidio Picnic this year?
Participating in Off the Grid has been like a trampoline for us to reach new customers. Especially this year at Presidio Picnic, which has been great exposure for COOL!NARIA.
There’s certainly is no lack of competition for great Mexican food in the Bay Area, but people are finally starting to recognize us for being different, and specifically seeking us out.
As cliche as it sounds, when you stop by COOL!NARIA, you aren’t just getting a taco, you’re getting an experience. Our menu is constantly changing based on what’s in season and at peak freshness. Plus, we just might throw in a few unexpected ingredients — things you just won’t find anywhere else, so it’s been fun to see customers returning to try new things. While there are plenty of delicious options at Presidio Picnic, we aim to keep our fans on the edge of their seat and coming back for more, week after week.
Coming together as a team to feed the hundreds (thousands?) of hungry mouths at Presidio Picnic in just a few hours has been a great team bonding experience for us, too. Finding restaurant staff in San Francisco can also be challenging, especially finding those who are passionate about cooking, are willing to put in the training and understand our vision. But that’s why when we find a good one, we hold on tight. Our entire team is like family to us and we wouldn’t be successful without them.
What are you most excited about looking down the road?
No doubt, this season we’re most excited to launch our sister seafood food truck concept, COOL!NARIA By The Sea. We’ll be offering an exclusively seafood-oriented menu which will allow us to really emphasize that we use wild catch, never frozen, 100% sustainable ingredients.
While this may mean that some of our prices will be higher than your run-of-the-mill fish tacos from another creator, we’re confident that we’ll be able to educate our customers on our philosophy and beliefs, and get them on board after just a few bites. We love seafood — it’s more fun to play with, to mix flavors together and to create unique dishes, so we’re thrilled to bring COOL!NARIA By The Sea it to the Bay Area in just a few weeks.