We’ve all heard the stories of pandemic-related restaurant industry carnage: eateries forced to close their doors and the countless employees who lost their jobs and livelihoods in the process. However, through the unmarked doors at Aquino’s Birrieria in Pacific Grove, there is a local success story to be found.
Ever since emigrating from Oaxaca, Mexico over 25 years ago, Macario and Paulina Aquino have made their living in the restaurant industry, Macario as a skilled chef and line cook, and his wife Paulina as an expert baker. For years they dreamed of one day opening their own restaurant with their son Gustavo, but that dream was squashed when they all lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Or was it?
Today, the brand new Aquino’s Birrieria restaurant sits inside a space in P.G.’s Fairway Shopping Center that was formerly occupied by the restaurant Chinese Dynasty. In an era marked by restaurants closing brick-and-mortar locations in favor of the takeout-friendly and less expensive “ghost kitchen” model (where a restaurant exists online and for takeout only, no sitdown service available), this start-up business has done just the opposite.
Aquino’s began as a pop-up business in the family’s home kitchen in Seaside. Initially, they were selling birria tacos to their friends for a dollar apiece and marketing to the public via social media. As their business and social media following grew, the Aquinos had a decision to make.
“We knew we had outgrown our kitchen, but we weren’t sure about opening a full service restaurant, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” says Gustavo, who handles most of the business operations for the family. “So at first we looked for kitchen space to rent. We also considered using a taco truck.”
But when a space became available, the Aquinos decided to go for it, signing a lease that gave them access to not only a much larger kitchen, but a dining room and all the space that comes with a full-scale brick-and-mortar establishment.
“We opened at this location on July 7, and so far business has been great,” says Gustavo, who studied marketing and computer science at CSU Monterey Bay. “We’re up to 3,500 followers on Instagram, launched a website, and so far business has been steady.”
Although the Aquinos use beef for their birria, the original recipe calls for goat meat that is cooked underground in a large pot, along with an assortment of Mexican herbs and spices, as well as a bottle of mezcal. The meat is cooked for four hours at over 500 degrees until it’s fall-apart done, and then served along with shots of mezcal to celebrate.
“In Oaxaca, birria is traditionally made during the holidays and considered a delicacy,” says Macario, who now holds the title of head chef. “But it’s gaining popularity and starting to show up on more menus here in the States. And ours is especially unique because of the consomé we serve with it.”
The consomé is the broth that results from the slow-cooking process. The Aquinos serve it as a condiment much the way au jus is served with a roast beef sandwich. “It’s not only delicious, but it’s also said to cure hangovers,” Macario asserts.
Whether that’s true or not, the Aquinos say there are other things that set them apart from the myriad local Mexican restaurants. “We stick to traditional Oaxacan recipes using fresh ingredients for all of our dishes,” Macario says. “Our salsa, our consomé and our birria are made fresh every day. Never a can in sight.”
While customers come for the birria, many stay for dessert. Paulina makes an assortment of Mexican treats, including the popular strawberry cream cheese churro tacos and, her personal favorite, the Tres Leches Cake.
Next up the Aquinos plan to renovate their space, which still features the old Chinese restaurant decor (this gives current customers a slightly awkward, if definitely unique, dining experience). “This will work for now, but we’ve got bigger plans for the future,” Gustavo says.
AQUINO’S BIRRIERIA is located at 1116A Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. Open 11am-8pm Tuesday-Sunday. 224-6760, aquinosbirrieria.com