With three locations already under its enchilada, San Luis Obispo’s own Chino’s Rock & Tacos is really getting ready to roll.
Launched downtown by Javier and Laurel Cadena in 2006, Chino’s offers authentic, “fast-casual” Mexican food in an energetic atmosphere flavored by music, skateboarding and bold graphics.
That ambiance paved the way for the second location in 2009 next to the UCSB campus in Isla Vista, but the third restaurant that opened in May 2010 in Paso Robles proved that the idea appeals to a wide mix. Now, having analyzed what works in those very different settings, the Cadenas are ready to franchise the Chino’s concept nationwide.
At first glance, the Chino’s menu might seem limited, but several options, such as beer-battered shrimp, seasoned steak and chipotle chicken, are built into the choices of hefty burritos, tasty tacos, and hearty salads (served with rice and beans in “bowls” made of big, crispy tortillas).
You can also enjoy three-bean tortilla soup or a veggie burrito, a fajita platter or an ahi taco, a la carte taquitos or a tamale combination plate.
Though its identity, menu and efficient service were created with a franchise model in mind, Chino’s is deeply rooted in Javier Cadena’s heart and heritage.
The restaurant’s name is a nod to the word “Chicano” that refers to his proud identity as a first-generation Mexican-American. He is, however, a third-generation restaurateur.
In 1966, his grandfather’s family opened Maya Restaurant in the Santa Barbara area, turning it into chain of several dozen Mexican restaurants throughout California.
Not surprisingly, Cadena grew up immersed in all aspects of the business, “But being born into it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in it,” he said.
Instead, music became his passion, in particular as a bass player in a punk band that traveled across the country with the Vans Warped Tour — by all accounts an exuberant combination of music and extreme sports.
“While we were touring, we realized that good, authentic Mexican food was missing outside of California,” Cadena said. “You had mom-and-pop eateries and corporate fast food, but nothing in-between.”
That struck a chord, and though he still frequently jams with friends, Cadena ultimately returned to restaurants, running two full-service Mexican eateries with his wife, Laurel, in Los Osos and Morro Bay before creating the Chino’s “fast casual” concept.
“We wanted to combine authentic and healthy, and focus on creating a communal atmosphere while still having the food come out fast,” said Cadena.
Though already trending toward that healthier approach — no-lard tortillas, no MSG, zero trans-fat cooking oil — the layout of the first location demanded it. Originally an ice cream shop, there was limited room for food storage.
“We ended up having to do continual prep,” said Cadena, “So things like our sauces and dressings are made here, all day, every day.”
Whenever possible, the Cadenas leverage their volume-ordering clout to purchase fresh local produce and sustainably grown proteins. At this point, that still presents challenges, but they were able to exclusively source one of their main salsa ingredients from a family-run farm in Northern California.
“We also got rid of Styrofoam right off the bat. We went with compostable packaging, and in-house diners are served on plates which are washed and re-used,” said Cadena. He added that designing the Paso Chino’s from the ground up gave them the opportunity to install water-saving features and lighting timers.
As their website states, “We strongly believe in building a company that is good for the Earth, you and our community,” and Cadena adds that “all this has also really changed how we live at home.”