All his life, Jesse Gomez wanted to be a lawyer, until one semester in law school cured that. Now he's into restaurants, not courtrooms. By the end of this year, he'll own six, which is not bad for a dropout. They all serve Mexican food, because that's his heritage.
Tall, good-looking and single – he's too busy to change that – Gomez turns 40 at the end of May. The restaurant business is tough, maybe tougher than lawyering, but he thrives on it. “There are headaches, but I can't imagine doing anything else,” he says.]
In partnership with corporate chef Jose Acevedo, Gomez owns two Mercados one in Santa Monica and one just west of the Grove in Los Angeles. They're upscale places, not hangouts with greasy enchilada plates. He also has Yxta Cocina Mexicana in downtown's Industrial District, and, with his mother, El Arco Iris in Highland Park, where the food is more traditional. Coming soon are another Mercado and a Mexican seafood restaurant in Eagle Rock.
Gomez is a risk taker, fighting the perception that Mexican food ought to be cheap. He figures that customers will pay for the best meats and produce and not walk out because they can't get dollar tacos. At the L.A. Mercado, tacos de alambre de arrachera – prime skirt-steak tacos with grilled onions and molcajete-style salsa – are $14.
Gomez has done well enough to buy a duplex in Venice, where he bikes, Rollerblades and walks to area restaurants. He's training in the tough Israeli defense and fight system krav maga, but not to duke it out on the streets of L.A. “I do it for the fitness aspect. It's really a martial art,” he says. He's an avid basketball player, too, but a calf-muscle tear has sidelined him for now.
His life wasn't always so privileged. Born in the French Hospital in Chinatown, Gomez grew up in Highland Park and Eagle Rock. His grandparents, who came to the United States from Mexico, worked modest jobs until they started El Arco Iris in the '60s. “My grandmother raised me – my father died when I was little,” he says. This freed his mother to work in the restaurant and made him fluent in Spanish. “I had to eat when I was little, and my grandmother didn't speak English,” he says. “Seeing her tireless work ethic definitely played a role in me being more like that.”
The family did well enough for Gomez to attend Princeton, where he majored in psychology. After graduation came the brief stint at Loyola Law School in downtown L.A. Then he plunged into the restaurant business, learning the ropes as a manager at Cha Cha Cha in Los Angeles, Crocodile Café in Pasadena, a couple of Houston's and Taleo Mexican Grill in Irvine.
Gomez may not be a lawyer but he has splurged on a lawyer's ride, a Ducati Multistrada, which he's ridden as far as Monterey. Living the luxe life isn't his goal, though. He'd like to expand his growing empire even further, no matter how hard the work. “Energy comes from loving what I do,” he says. “I love being in the restaurants.”