Keep on keeping on at Yahaira's Cafe
By Dan O'Heron 05/03/2012
In trying to follow his parent’s footsteps in the art of cookery, it could have been expected that Armando Ramirez might hobble to a halt for the effort.
But how about following a father like Abel Ramirez, who had been a chef at the luxury Huntington Hotel, a manager of the exclusive Athenaeum at Caltech, owner of the a popular El Portal Restaurant and a major player in community affairs? Wouldn’t that have been like tracing the footprints of Yeti to the edge of a cliff?
A tall order for many, maybe, but not for Ramirez. “For me it wasn’t a hard thing for me to pull off at all. While attending La Salle High in Sierra Madre, I enjoyed the job dad got me in washing dishes at the Athenaeum,” he says. “In my spare time, the game for me was chasing around the chefs and asking questions. I was taught how much fun it is to use a knife — making the best cuts of meat with no waste.”
Later, still in high school, Ramirez would serve as an auxiliary host at Athenaeum weekend parties. He said that he felt comfortable around fussy people and didn’t mind asking, “May I take your coat?”
After culinary school, at age 19, Ramirez became head chef of dad’s El Portal Restaurant on Arcade Lane, in the heart of the city’s historic Playhouse District. In January 2000, nearby at the Colorado Boulevard entrance to the lane, he opened Yahaira’s, which today courts a wide patronage for a unique mix of traditional Mexican and Nuevo Latino-style sandwiches, salads, tacos, wraps, select dinner items and a nifty breakfast menu. There’s no better wake-up call than an audibly crisp corn tortilla slathered with black bean puree and topped with two eggs, plus ham, stewed tomato sauce, sweet peas and home-fried potatoes ($7.25).
Joined by his brother, Ricardo, who had been a waiter at Restaurant Lozano and Parkway Grill, Ramirez would open Vanessa’s, a specialty coffee and dessert house. Handily located in Arcade Lane, Vanessa’s brings desserts like espresso bread puddings and warm brownies with ice cream (Fosselman’s) to the café.
Family values? During the 2008 recession, Ramirez’ wife, Leticia, served as a sous chef at Yahaira’s. “To get by, and maintain high standards, we all worked longer hours with less pay,” says Ramirez.
Ramirez’s family restaurant life would be good material for a TV sitcom with happy endings.
While classic rules and recipes govern the making of many Yucatecan — and other regional Mexican dishes like great luncheon tacos and burritos — the menu is overlaid with the imaginative seasonal and textural new tastes of Nuevo Latino-style cookery
These dishes include a salad made of pears, tangy-sweet Mandarin oranges, caramelized walnuts and rich and creamy Gorgonzola cheese over mixed greens, all dressed up with a Chardonnay/mustard sauce. Then there’s grilled salmon with hominy grits; Cuban-style, slow-roasted pork, ham and chicken tortas; Milanese-style chicken breast; a grilled vegetable panini, served with pesto on a long-wide crunchy ciabatta roll; and a dilly of a quesadilla made of grilled, intensely meaty portabello mushrooms with nutty Jack cheese melted on a spinach tortilla.
It seems to me that Yahaira’s successful 12-year run has been largely implemented by these Nuevo Latino dishes — and, of course, the silver spoon its owner was born with.