From Importing Tequila to Incubating East L.A.'s Modern Mexican Food Movement
Chuy Tovar is a behind-the-scenes booster of L.A.’s Mexican food revolution.
Photo by Danny Liao
“I came to the U.S. when I was 5, so in tequila terms that would make me an extra añejo,” Chuy Tovar says as we cruise through Lincoln Heights, the neighborhood where the former tequila importer, coffee shop owner and all-around booster of artisanal Mexican food spent most of his childhood. “I remember when there were actual tumbleweeds rolling through the Arts District. That’s where me and my brothers would hang out."
In L.A., Tovar studied at USC, where he majored in accounting and finance. After a stint working in restaurant operations for Patina Group, he was drawn into the world of tequila marketing by a few college friends. Working with brands such as Siete Leguas and Tequila Real de Mexico, he went on to become an intermediary between influential bartenders and chefs (like John Sedlar and Julian Cox) and generations-old tequila distilleries in Jalisco, helping develop L.A.’s nascent craft tequila movement in the process. “Tequila had obviously been around the cocktail world for decades, but this was when people first started paying attention to it as a craft product,” he says.
Tovar also had relationships with burgeoning Mexican restaurants like Mariscos Jalisco and Corazon y Miel. If you were an enterprising Mexican-American restaurateur or entrepreneur looking to break into the city’s competitive food scene, Tovar was the man to consult.
But it wasn’t until recently that Tovar became directly involved in the food business. A friend asked him to help find a buyer for a coffee shop near Mariachi Plaza in the cultural heart of Boyle Heights, and Tovar and his business partner, Antonio Segoviano, decided in 2015 to take over the shop themselves. Primera Taza, as it was named, became a community-oriented space that offers food from local chefs — including Jalisco-style lonche de lomo sandwiches made by Tovar’s wife, Rosalinda — and coffee beans sourced from local Latino roasters or burgeoning Mexican roasters like Tijuana’s Fabian Sanchez.
“[My wife and I] just asked ourselves, ‘What else are we missing from home?’” Tovar recalls.
Across Los Angeles, Tovar sees a Latino community that “wants to come to the table” in terms of artisan food production but often is faced with limited business resources. He’s witnessing a similar phenomenon in Jalisco’s vibrant capital, Guadalajara — which, like L.A., is the second largest city in its country.
“They’re both creative cities with traditional roots” he says, “and what is considered traditional is slowly expanding.”
Tovar says being part of a cultural change in East Los Angeles and other Latino communities involves anticipating trends rather than following them — or, as he puts it: “The surfer doesn’t wait for the wave. He anticipates it.”