For this installment of my semi-regular series, I get to know Ramon Velazquez, executive chef at Cielito, the combo taco bar/upscale antojitos restaurant, with a name that translates to “a little bit of heaven.” Cielito will mark its first anniversary on December 20, and in that time, it’s become one of the hottest reservations in town, a fact that has everything to do with Velazquez’s sensibility. His food is inspired and evocative, exquisite to look at and to eat. As he said more than once in our 15 minutes, “If you’re going to do it, do it right.” Sure, such a philosophy might mean a little (or a lot) more work for Velazquez and his team, but that extra effort translates to a bigger bite of heaven for the rest of us.
Here, we talk Mexico, movie stars, and mariachi.
If your decision to become a chef could be traced to one food memory, what would it be? Tortillas. My grandma making homemade tortillas. It’s just my memory that I have always, her making these giant homemade tortillas.
You have a guest at home you want to impress. What’s the go-to meal? Birria — it’s stew made with either lamb or goat. It’s a very traditional dish from the state of Jalisco, where I’m from. Anybody that eats it, it transports you to that place; it brings people memories.
If someone could eat here only once, what should they order? Just one thing? Well, let’s say, one meal. Start with the tasting of our ceviche bar. Everyone should have the ceviche. It doesn’t matter if the president came here; he needs to eat the ceviche. The sopasitos [crispy corn mini-boats with braised short rib] and the cazuela de chorizo [house-made chorizo with rajas] — so earthy, when you taste it you go, wow. And the enchiladas de camarones [shrimp and crab enchiladas in poblano-tomatillo cream sauce].
What’s the best dining experience in Santa Barbara, other than Cielito of course? I’d have to say Julienne, but it’s gonna be like, oh, are you guys friends? [When I interviewed Justin West, owner and head chef at Julienne, he answered this question with “Cielito.”] I like to eat everything, lots of things when I go out. He’s a foodie like me. Like, Justin comes here, and he eats everything, the octopus — oh, that person who can only eat here once should also have the octopus! The pulpa la plancha … Either Julienne or Ca’ Dario.
What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever happened here? [Velazquez sits back thinking, while consultant Linda Spann, nearby, drops a list of boldface customers, including Katy Perry, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and “that country guy” who turns out to be Brad Paisley; meanwhile, Ramon’s nodding, unimpressed.] I don’t even know these people … I think it was one year ago, the first meal we served — before the restaurant was even open, for the first day of La Arcada Christmas Walk, we served 900 tamales. It took two or three ladies a week to make them, and we thought, there’s no way we’ll go through them, and they were gone. Gone!
You killed your sommelier and are on death row. What’s your last meal? I want tequila, mole negro with chicken, and I want mariachi playing. That would be it; I would die happy.
What’s your favorite food city? Mexico City. You can have the most upscale food in the world; then around the corner, you can have the best tacos. I was there with my sister and had this amazing four-hour meal, and we walked out of the restaurant, and she said, do you smell that? And we followed it to a little taco stand, and we ate tacos after that meal!
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without? Chiles.
Fill in the blank: People might be surprised to see me eating ___. Sushi. Because I did it for 10 years [as chef at Arigato], so I don’t crave it. My wife is Japanese and Irish, and she’ll say, let’s have sushi, and I tell her, go with a friend. I just don’t crave it.
Finally: Bacon: Awesome or overrated? Awesome. Especially fresh pork belly bacon. Not like how people eat it at breakfast like just a piece of beef jerky, but it’s the best when you add it to a dish. That flavor!