Restaurateur and longtime Venice resident Oscar Hermosillo hasn't spent the last 25 years in a professional kitchen. He didn’t attend culinary school or train as an apprentice under an esteemed chef. He hasn’t appeared on "Top Chef" or "MasterChef" or "Iron Chef," and you won’t find a Who's Who of culinary dignitaries working the lines of his kitchens.
Of course, you’d never know this when dining at one of his restaurants or talking to him about his métier. Hermosillo who owns Venice Beach Wines and Oscar’s Cerveteca, two consistently top-rated restaurants on Rose Avenue, recently purchased Benny’s Tacos on Lincoln Blvd., and is in the process of opening two more eateries around town."I come up with concepts. Mom and I work on the recipes and we bring in and consult local cooks," he says.
Many credit him with pioneering the transformation of Rose Avenue. His restaurants are usually chock-full with diners, yet Hermosillo, a former social worker, hasn’t spent a dime on marketing or publicity. He hasn’t needed to. The experience he’s cultivated has done the work for him.
Then & Now: Venice Beach Wines
So, for a restaurateur without formal training, what’s the secret sauce behind his thriving restaurants? For starters, Hermosillo has something no amount of culinary schooling, James Beard accolades or Michelin stars can promise: passion, authenticity and a knack for sticking to good ol’-fashioned culinary wisdom.
“You know, make them happy, make them come back, and make sure they pay. It’s pretty basic.”
Hermosillo notes that in today’s Food Network era, the industry has shifted, and it seems as if every new restaurant is bedecked with “10 designers, 20 investors and [such-and-such] name behind it.” Instead of allowing himself to get seduced by the glitz and glamour of it all, he likes to stick to the basic, age-old philosophy that started the restaurant industry in the first place. In other words, Hermosillo likes to keep it simple.
“It’s very old-school,” he says of his unfussy, pared-down approach. “I like my places to feel authentic, and I want the business to run authentically.”
For Hermosillo, that authenticity is manifested in almost everything he touches, which is a good thing, considering that he has a hand in just about every aspect of the business. From his team, to the food concepts and locally sourced ingredients, to the design, right down the music that’s playing in the background of all of his restaurants — which he handpicks and delivers every Thursday — Hermosillo’s restaurants reflect his hands-on commitment to maintaining authenticity and preserving a down-to-earth, unpretentious environment.
Not quite mom-and-pop joints, Hermosillo’s restaurants operate more like mom-pop-sister-wife-and-nephew joints. He and his mother are the masterminds behind the cuisine, which include many family recipes like Mama’s Ceviche and Norma’s Chipotle Beer Shrimp; his sister runs operations, and Hermosillo’s wife, Norma, is a certified wine buyer who handles all of the beverages. His dad “can do whatever the hell he wants because he’s Dad,” which when translated, means that Dad mans the bars and sometimes pours the same cocktail he made in 1970-something. Hermosillo’s nephews round out the family gang, and his uncle occasionally rolls by on a skateboard to drop off keys (as witnessed by yours truly one July afternoon).
To say that Hermosillo’s family helps him run his businesses would be an understatement. In fact, he credits them, along with a “core administrative team,” as a main reason why he’s been able to grow what was initially a wine retail passion project between he and his wife — Venice Beach Wines — into numerous restaurants and eateries.
Currently, Hermosillo is working on three passion projects, which include plans to reinvent Benny’s Tacos and expand the Cerveteca brand to downtown LA and Culver City. Slated to open in October, Cerveteca Downtown will fuse the Cerveteca and Venice Beach Wines concepts by introducing both a ceviche and charcuterie program. The now-defunct Cerveteca Boardwalk taco stand, which Hermosillo chose to shut down in June, will relaunch in Culver City as Cerveteca Taco y Torta Joint, and he hopes to have up and running by the end of August. Benny’s Tacos, the most recent eatery to join Hermosillo’s roster of restaurants, isn’t a part of the Cerveteca expansion plan. In fact, Benny’s wasn’t part of Hermosillo’s plan at all.
“This one was not supposed to happen,” he says of the recent deal. After learning that the owner was selling Benny’s and considering turning it into a Fatburger chain, Hermosillo, who lives 10 doors away, felt compelled to step in. “In my head, I’m thinking ‘Absolutely not. Not down the street from me. I have to get in there and talk to the guy.’” Fast-forward a few conversations later, and Hermosillo not only thwarted the development of another fast food chain, he became Benny’s Tacos’ new titleholder.
“I’m like ‘Holy shit, now I have another restaurant. How the hell did that happen?’” he laughs.
However spontaneous the transaction was, it has only served to propel Hermosillo’s passion. It didn’t take long for him to nail down a theme, which he enthusiastically describes as a “Cali-Mex roadhouse,” two concepts he holds dear.
A longtime classic car and motorcycle enthusiast, Hermosillo felt very inspired after returning from a recent ride in Ensenada Wine Country, a region peppered with numerous roadhouses and beer joints. He became obsessed with the roadhouse concept, so it was a natural fit for Benny’s Tacos, which, as Hermosillo notes, sits along “historical cruising ground.”
The roadhouse’s Cali-Mex cuisine, something Hermosillo admits he’s pushing right now, will focus on locally sourced comfort food, such as tri-tip and grilled vegetables, with a Latin flair.
“I hear a lot of elevated Mexican [this] or Riviera [that],” he says when describing the Cali-Mex approach, adding that there isn’t anything he feels the need to label as ‘elevated.’ “When you taste my food, you’ll know there are 30 ingredients in my mole. I don’t need to tell you every farm [we source from]. You can taste it.’”
And at Benny’s, Hermosillo’s approach will be the exact same. “You’re going to eat comfort, good, yummy, simple food, but you’re going to feel the quality,” he explains. And though the menu will change, Hermosillo plans on maintaining the same price point diners came to appreciate at the old spot.
Though he hasn’t officially settled on a new name for Benny’s yet, Hermosillo is currently leaning toward Sunset Roadhouse, a nod to the restaurant’s location on Lincoln Boulevard and Sunset Avenue. After an extensive remodel, which includes adding an indoor wood-burning grill, he hopes to re-open around September. Just like the former Benny’s, the new spot will offer takeout, albeit only during certain hours of the day. Twice a month, Hermosillo plans to host regular barbecues with live music in the parking lot.
With two successful restaurants and three more on the way, it’s safe to say that Hermosillo has a lot on his plate. Other chefs or restaurateurs would probably choose to either focus on one project at a time or outsource some of the work, but Hermosillo isn’t like the others.
For him, it’s not enough to own a successful restaurant or five; he wants to be a part of each restaurant, something that can only be attributed to his propensity for authenticity, simplicity and a genuine love of his work.
“It’s about the lifestyle, not the empire,” he says. “I don’t feel like I need to prove myself. … This is the way I’m rocking it.”