When it comes to opening restaurants, Miguel Urrutia knows what he’s doing. He helped launch three Houlihan’s locations, Pittsburgh Blue in Maple Grove, and more than 15 Rainforest Cafes, including the Mall of America location in 1994. Every time he opened a restaurant, he could expect three weeks of nonstop 17-hour days.
“When I touched the bed, I was already asleep,” he said. “…Now I’m opening this one for me.”
El Jefe Cocina & Bar opens in May at 5309 Lyndale Ave. S. in the former Saguaro space. It’s an extension of the El Jefe food truck, which sells homemade salsas and tortilla chips and churns out 150 chorizo breakfast burritos in four hours.
“I feel like this is the perfect location,” said Urrutia, who earned the Minnesota Restaurant Association’s Faces of Diversity Award in 2017. “I’ve been cleaning this place for the entire month, and I see people walking around all the time.”
Urrutia worked his final day at Pittsburgh Blue this week, pointedly turning in his key when the restaurant was nearly empty, save for a few tearful prep cooks.
“It was really hard to leave my job and leave everyone behind,” he said.
When he started at Pittsburgh Blue in 2007, the restaurant asked him to hire 60 people.
“I said I didn’t need 60 people. I ended up hiring 28 people. They told me I was crazy, but it worked out,” he said.
Of his original 28-member crew, 20 remained for a decade. Urrutia explained that he hates losing people, so he tries to keep the job fun. He doesn’t want staff waking up dreading what might go wrong at work that day.
“I like making everyone feel like family,” he said.
At age 83, his mother continues to have a forceful personality, he said. When he asked to learn her mole recipe, she initially refused, saying: “Why? I can do it.” During the lesson, she threw in fistfuls of ingredients without guidance on precise amounts, and accused Urrutia of not knowing how to work a blender. She’s the restaurant’s namesake.
“I call my mom ‘Jefe,’ which means boss,” he said.
Urrutia also learned from his father, who owned a small restaurant at a highway truck stop in Mexico. Urrutia worked there washing dishes as a 12-year-old boy.
“Every time I asked for money, he said he was feeding me food,” he said.
Urrutia made salsas for family reunions, and relatives encouraged him to sell it by the jar. His original mild recipe incorporates tomato, onion, cilantro and lime juice, with no hot peppers and lots of spices. Other salsas include a hot jabanero and a fruit salsa popular at home (his first two gallons disappeared from the family fridge in two days). Off-season, some customers order four pints at a time.
“People just pour them on the plates,” he said. “They like them.”
Salsa sales brought Urrutia to the Prior Lake Farmers Market in 2013. He went on to buy a food trailer in 2015, followed by a food truck in 2017.
A popular food truck staple is the chicken tinga taco, slow cooked in chipotle-tomato sauce. That isn’t Urrutia’s favorite, however, as he lost his stomach for the bird after taking care of 600 roosters when he first came to the states. His personal favorite is the ceviche, featuring tilapia cured in lime juice and mixed with tomatoes, onion, cilantro, pickled jalapenos and topped with avocado.
The food truck will continue to appear at the Prior Lake market, private events and local breweries, including Wild Mind Artisan Ales on Saturday, April 7.
The Lyndale Avenue restaurant will serve lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.
“I want this place to be somewhere that people feel welcome and comfortable and not want to leave,” Urrutia said.