Traci Des Jardins Loves Zuni Café, Hates Burritos

Photo: J. Barmann/Grub Street

The local empire of Beard Award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins has been in expansion mode the last couple of years. While remaining exec chef at Jardinière, she also expanded to the ballpark in 2008 with Acme Chophouse and to the Ferry Building with Mijita taqueria. This past winter up in Tahoe she opened Manzanita at the Ritz-Carlton Highlands. Next week, the enormous Acme Chophouse space is being reborn as two new restaurants: the baseball-friendly Public House which opens April 9th, and a second Mijita location. Chef Des Jardins sat down with Grub Street recently to talk about the reconcepting, and also about how customers balk at four-dollar tacos, and where else her empire might grow down the line.

You have a lot of balls in the air at the moment? How’s that going?
It’s a little wild. Opening three restaurants in a four-month period is something I certainly have never done before, and I’m a little spun out. I have to say, opening the place in Tahoe has been pretty different. I’ve had three places here for a while, and I won’t say it’s easy but at least it’s easy to get from one to the other. And now I have this new place that’s, well, kind of remote.

Tell us about the decision to split up Acme Chophouse.
Well, I took over 24 and reconcepted it as Acme, and I felt all along that the restaurant that began as 24 was way too formal for where it was. It was too fine dining for the ballpark, and the restaurant was just massive. 375 seats if you seated both the patios and the whole inside. A huge, huge restaurant. We turned it into Acme and made it more casual, but I don’t think we made it casual enough. We always struggled in that space. We’d be full on game days, but that’s only 85 days a year, and the rest of the time we were struggling. And nobody wants to go into an empty restaurant. Even if we had 80 or 100 diners sitting in there, which is a good number, it still felt really empty. When I was looking at reconcepting the restaurant once again, I couldn’t get my arms around anything, and I was sitting with my architects one day and they said, “Why don’t you just split it in half,” and that hit a chord with all of us. The Mijita thing seemed like a complete natural fit. I think it will do really well there. And the pub concept at Public House thing just fits in really well with the neighborhood and the ballpark too.

So is this it? Do you have any designs on any other parts of the country?
I think I’m done for now. You know I really enjoyed the working relationship I had with the Ritz-Carlton group. Manzanita was really fun to create, and they’re a great group, and if the opportunity arose to work with them again I’d definitely consider it.

And the Mijita concept is something I always intended to do more of. I’ve found some market resistance in California, just because people are used to Mexican food being ultra-ultra cheap. It pisses me off to no end that people complain about paying $3.50 or four bucks for the tacos we serve at Mijita. Not so much anymore, but they really did at the beginning. And, you know, maybe you think you can get a taco that’s sort of the same thing in the Mission, but it’s not. First off, the ingredients aren’t the same, not organic. And it makes me mad because people go to Peet’s and pay $3.50 for a latte, for four dollars at Four Bottle, so it’s all perception. Why should a taco cost two dollars when all these other things are priced this way?

Also people here have this whole burrito thing, and honestly, I hate burritos. I grew up eating burritos. My grandfather was from Sonora, Mexico and there was a tradition of flour tortillas there — I prefer corn now — but I grew up eating bean and cheese burritos in flour tortillas. Just simple, small… they didn’t have all this other stuff in them. Mission burritos — it’s like you might as well just take a bunch of stuff and throw it in a blender and eat it with a spoon. The flavors are all muddled, it’s just gross. And they’re just gigantic. Who can eat all that? It’s too much food.

So if I expand the Mijita franchise I’ll probably look to the East Coast. There’s still not very much good Mexican food in New York, and what there is is pretty expensive. And people there don’t have the same, strong frame of reference as they do here.

Michael Bauer recently quoted Madeleine Kammen as saying that women chefs tend to be more nurturing. Do you subscribe to that sort of generalization?

What’s nurturing, a pot of stew? I don’t know what that means exactly. I do think women cook differently, and they have a different approach to food. If I were to make a vast generalization, I would say their food tends to be less appearance-driven, and less about presentation. But I think you have to be clear. I think a woman’s palate is somewhat different. If I think about the flavors… I don’t know, I can’t pinpoint it.

Why do you think San Francisco has evolved into, mostly, a non-fine dining kind of town?

At the Bocuse D’Or USA, that was one of the topics of conversation: Are we seeing an end to fine dining? And the general consensus was no. There’s always going to be an occasion when people are going to want to go to a French Laundry or a Daniel, and to have that kind of more formal experience. I think Danny Meyer really revolutionized dining. It used to be that couldn’t get high quality food and service except in those suit-and-tie kind of places, and now you can.

As for San Francisco, I don’t think that’s true at all. I grew up in the Central Valley, and I remember coming to places like Robert, and Ernie’s for birthdays — there were a lot of fine dining restaurants here historically. If you think about Chez Panisse, is that fine dining? I mean, it’s more casual — it is Berkeley — but that’s still fine dining. And you think about places like Masa’s, AquaCoi and Quince are both pretty formal — and back to the 80’s, places like Stars. That was a very glitzy, glamorous scene all the time. You couldn’t get anyone more showy than Jeremiah Tower. I think we’ve had restaurants like that for a long time. Has it been the benchmark? I can’t really say.

If you could choose any space in San Francisco to do something with, no limits, what would it be?
I love Zuni. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the world and I’ve probably eaten there more than I’ve eaten anywhere else. I love the space, I love Judy’s food, I love the atmosphere. I’ve been going there since the 80’s and I think it’s spectacular.

In terms of neighborhoods, I love the Mission. I’m kind of an offbeat location kind of person. I mean, yeah, I have a restaurant in the Ferry Building, but the Mission is my favorite neighborhood by far. I love Foreign Cinema. I love lofty, warehouse spaces like that. And I’ve certainly fantasized about those big theaters, doing something that’s in a big, old, cavernous space like that. I love those theaters, and they’re empty, they’re defunct. I’d also just love to do something there because I love the community, and I love the idea of supporting industry there. I also always loved the old Mission Police Station on 17th Street. It was for sale a few years ago. I’ve always been so enthralled by that building.

Earlier: What to Eat at Des Jardins’ Manzanita, Opening Today in Tahoe [Grub Street]
Acme Chophouse to Split in Two [Grub Street]

Traci Des Jardins Loves Zuni Café, Hates Burritos