On La Chinesca’s distinctive visual branding amidst the competitiveness that’s ever-present in Manila’s food scene.
Words by Michelle V. Ayuyao
Portraits by Shaira Luna
Product Photos by Paolo Geronimo
“Can we ever have enough tacos in our lives?” asked the late American food critic Jonathan Gold in a 2013 piece. “I didn’t think so,” he continued, as if hearing the collective sigh from many a reader of his LA Times column across the world. “A perfect taco is a gift to the universe.”
There is no end for one’s love for tacos, and the devotion that husband and wife Bruce Ricketts and Jae Pickrell have for it is clear proof. While first known mainly for working with Japanese-centered flavors, as seen in Sensei Sushi and then Mecha Uma after it, putting up a taco shop may have been a decision not many saw coming for Ricketts. For those familiar with his culinary journey however, putting up some semblance of a Mexican cantina was par for the course.
“Japanese is my front, you know,” Ricketts jokes, though peppered by modesty for the most part. As a teen, Ricketts and his father Christopher— founder of Bakbakan International— moved to the US because of their background in mixed martial arts. During this time, a teenage Ricketts worked in various California kitchens, specifically in San Diego, which is located close to the Mexican border. Before dipping into the technicalities and techniques in food that he is now accustomed to, it’s Mexican food that he grew with, thoughtfully saying, “It’s kind of my first love. Tacos are my comfort food.”
Upon his return to Manila, Ricketts unleashed his dexterity for bold Japanese flavors. Admittedly, plans for a taqueria resurfaced not as Plan B, but more as a homecoming to a past self, along with being a welcome respite on his days off. He first teased at the idea for his Manila taqueria in mid-2015, when Mecha Uma was converted into a colorful pop-up taco shop. For one day, the restaurant’s signature wood, glass, and copper fixtures served as a canvas to a full-fledged fiesta. There was horchata, aguachile tostadas, and street tacos that ranged from beer- battered snapper with salsa fresca, to meaty mole poblanos. A mountain of plastic cups for agua frescas and other bebidas were stacked up on one corner, and following the bend behind it was a mass of people, all crowded around the kitchen counter that would normally seat 10 people at most. And so, Manila got a taste of what was to become La Chinesca.
“We nailed down La Chinesca’s concept in just one lunchtime hour,” shares Pickrell, due to the fact that Ricketts already had a clear vision of what he wanted the restaurant to serve; not classical Mexican food, but his take on the cuisine. “I’m after the feeling that I used to get when I would eat tacos in San Diego, rather than the exact taste of those tacos,” assures Ricketts.
On the visual end, Pickrell came up with a clear idea that resonated with her husband, as well as the vibe they both wanted to see in a restaurant. “Bruce and I established the story of La Chinesca right from the get-go, which was crucial in determining its design direction,” shares Pickrell, who lays down the visual foundation of their concept through prose: “We imagined a Mexican cook transplanted in Manila, who craves and cooks the food of his/her land using local ingredients, with techniques that are traditional and authentic to Mexican cuisine. S/he needed to be in a space filled with nostalgia and references to identity.” The shop channels this by means of Ricketts and Pickrell’s own personalities, which came together through close collaboration with Serious Studio.
Both parties agreed to veer far and away from typical taquerias, working instead with the inner city cultures of Mexico and Hong Kong in mind. As the restaurant is named after Mexicali’s Chinatown, the Asian- Mexican connection came alive in La Chinesca’s logo, which is equal parts luchador coverup and Chinese opera mask; an idea that Pickrell says was executed well and with such patience. “Serious Studio gave me so many iterations of the logo I had imagined but couldn’t draw.” Serious Studio then explains, “The design direction aimed for a visually eclectic look—a clash of cultural and historical aesthetic traditions.”
The shop itself is small, yet surprisingly spacious. Patched on its walls like a college student’s dorm room is a mishmash of print-outs with magazine editorials, film posters, and screen grabs, all brilliantly bastardized with Photoshopped taco and taco- related elements. It’s as if someone went on a pop culture bender and rode out the high with corn tortillas and carne asada. Who’s complaining? Serious Studio created the base posters for the wall art, which in turn gave Pickrell the confidence to create and add her own over time. Each one is expertly selected as playful riffs on Ricketts and Pickrell’s cultural tastes— opening credits of The Simpsons are represented via Bart’s chalkboard writings of “I will eat at La Chinesca;” Tony Montana looks out at a pile of tacos that’s as good as drugs anyway; “Taco Life” replaces Tupac’s “Thug Life” tattoo; René Magritte’s “The Son of Man” swaps out the green apple for a taco. Ricketts’s martial arts background and fondness for the anime Cooking Master Boy are even tacked up, along with an inside joke that has to do with Pickrell’s younger self looking like Peko- chan of Milky Chocolate. Serious Studio says, “We wanted to exude a consistently irrevent personality that’s as aggressively diverse as the flavors of its ever-evolving menu.”
The art on the wall is where the eyes travel, but part and parcel of the shop’s vibrancy are the details that are subtly placed in various nooks and surfaces. Cactus varieties are potted into used corn and bean tins which add color to every table, while up on the shelves, Mexican cookbooks are stacked close to a set of jícaras for the occasional mezcal.
The appeal of La Chinesca, apart of course from its food, is the way that it is utilitarian in space, without sacrificing image. “Good, effective design is a vital corollary to a good dining experience,” affirms Pickrell. Making a lasting first impression is pivotal for any business, more so those that are in the restaurant industry who contend with competitive peers. La Chinesca’s visual branding has managed to dip into personal aspects of Pickrell and Ricketts, and translate these into imagery that truly illustrates the restaurant’s culture.
Design, in this case, has transcended merely being an accessory to the main dining experience. Rather, it becomes a component in the experiential side of eating at the taco shop; its name and complementary logo of luchador- Chinese opera mask suggest that it isn’t traditional in the way you’d think. Then, the collage of art lend an almost Where’s Waldo-like feel of search and find. The culmination of all these facets not only tells the story of La Chinesca’s history, but heightens the excitement of being there. Yes, to taste a good meal is great, but to create a multi-sensory experience through the guidance of good design creates more depth in dining.
Was it a conscious decision to set up shop in a modest space?
Bruce: Yes. The southern community, specifically BF Homes, has been so supportive since my Sensei days, and we felt that they would be receptive to a new concept. We knew we wanted to start small with few risks but make the brand scaleable.
La Chinesca’s food is creative yet anchored on tradition as opposed to being too progressive. Is this an idea carried out in other facets of running the place or did you decide to go another direction?
Bruce: La Chinesca’s food does not claim to be “authentic” because authenticity in cooking is such a slippery concept. What we do is interpret Mexican dishes and execute them with traditional Mexican techniques with a lot of respect for their original counterparts. While I do stamp my style on our dishes, we try not to stray too far from how they would taste and be made in Mexico. After all, comfort food rarely tends to stray from what’s familiar.
What brands related to the food industry inspire you right now, and why?
Jae: It’s so far from the bold heartiness of Mexican fare, but there’s nothing that inspires us more than Japanese cuisine, specifically its obsession with mastery of technique.
How’s the dynamic of being partners like as you continue working on La Chinesca? What has changed since?
Jae: It was a great deal of fun collaborating with my husband. We nailed down La Chinesca’s concept in just one lunchtime hour because he knew exactly what he wanted to serve, and luckily I tossed him a vision that he felt embodied the vibe of what the restaurant needed to be. Working in the kitchen together though was a different story, especially when we opened our second branch in a mall and had to deal with an insane amount of customers. We definitely struggled at the beginning, but we learned how to bank on our individual strengths and fill in the gaps in each other’s weaknesses.
What are your future plans for La Chinesca? What about for the two of you—personally and/or professionally?
Jae: We’d definitely like to build a third branch or an offshoot concept called La Chinesca Cantina, which would serve more than just tacos, small plates and tostadas. After that, we’d like to dream up a new restaurant from the stable of Bruce’s ideas.
Read our full case study on the La Chinesca brand here.
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