No bravado or hubris hitches a ride with Javier Sosa, El Jefe of sophisticated Mexican cuisine in the OC.
Rather, as he tells his story, he seems as humble and modest as his food industry roots doing odd jobs as a 12-year-old in a Tijuana restaurant.
At 62, fit and trim, Sosa is at the top of his game in the highly competitive and always risky world of Mexican restaurants. The road up had many potholes, detours and disappointments. Maybe that’s what informs his attitude of gratitude.
Camera- and publicity-shy, he says his partner, Mark Post, insisted they use Javier’s name on the marquee of their first joint-venture restaurant in Laguna Beach in 1995.
Both had worked at Tortilla Flats, which, along with El Torito, once made claim to the best Mexican food around, and most of us didn’t know better. After all, to the uninitiated, their menus seemed a giant step-up from the Jack-in-the-Box taco that sustained us after parties 50 years ago.
Today, Sosa generously spreads credit for the overwhelming success of four subsequent Javier’s – at Irvine Spectrum, Newport Coast, Las Vegas, and back to his roots in Cabo San Lucas. Each is ambitious in the quality, authenticity and prices of their food and their mostly tequila-based bebidas.
Sosa set out to honor the varied regional cuisine of Mexico that is often defined by distinctive sauces and salsas. From the start, he insisted on quality ingredients that are fresh.
“We only use fresh fish – including the crab, lobster and the finest number one white Mexican shrimp – and the best prime filet cuts available,” Sosa explains. To maintain quality control in Baja California, he flies his fish and meat into Cabo.
The core of each kitchen is a group of women who create the exquisite regional sauces of Mexico. Men saute and grill the meats and fish. There’s no celebrity chef. They work as a team. They don’t cut corners.
“I have a wonderful group of family and employees who have worked together and with me for years,” he says with obvious pride, respect and appreciation. He believes it makes a difference in the customer experience.
Each restaurant is distinctive for its lavish and tasteful design, which creates an ambience that Sosa acknowledges is a big part of their success. He suggests that the finest restaurants in Mexico City follow the same template.
In Las Vegas, one of America’s most competitive restaurant markets, the sleek new Javier’s in the Aria Hotel is out-grossing the always-packed Javier’s at Newport Coast.
Jim Crocenzi, my friend and restaurant real estate guru, closed the deal to bring Javier's to the Irvine Spectrum in 2004. He notes that success at the high-end has been breathtaking, where restaurants like Javier’s have been thriving in upscale physical environments that create their own buzz, and that also are widely praised for their authentic Mexican cuisine and enticing tequilas. Think Taco Rosa and SOL Cocina in Newport Beach, Gabbi’s in Orange and South of Nick’s in San Clemente.
Their collective success and market acceptance no doubt helped Crocenzi successfully negotiate to bring the red hot (should I say caliente?) Red O to Fashion Island where it opens this summer.
Red O will give everyone a run for their money, including customers. Its jammed restaurant on Melrose Avenue in L.A. is a playground of the stars, the hip and the beautiful, is hard to crack for a reservation, and has price points a good step above Javier’s.
Its appeal is enhanced by its celebrity chef, the internationally acclaimed Rick Bayless, best known for his PBS series, “Mexico – One Plate at a Time,” and from his six cookbooks.
What I love is that these creative and imaginative restaurateurs have had the courage to raise the bar to honor the food of Mexico, refusing to dumb down their food for the American palate. We’ve become more aware and discerning along the way.
One of Sosa’s proudest moments came during the opening of his Las Vegas restaurant. A well-heeled and well-traveled couple from Mexico City asked to meet him after their meal.
“They told me our food was better than the food they serve in their celebrated restaurant in Mexico City,” Sosa recalls. “It was very special.”
Vamos a Comer
Javier's Crystal Cove, 7832 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach; Javier's Irvine Spectrum, 45 Fortune Dr., Irvine