Retirement agrees with El Portal owner and Pasadena mainstay Abel Ramirez. Well, kind of.
The restauranteur has been “practicing retirement” for two years now, but most days, you’ll still find him at the Mexican and Yucatan specialty restaurant.
“I’m still having fun with the businesses,” said Abel who turns 75 this week. “There are still a lot of risks and stresses, but what keeps me sane is that I have fun with it. Everybody should do what they love.”
Located in the heart of Pasadena’s Playhouse District, El Portal is a family affair, with love behind the service and quality food the secret to its 22 years of success.
Abel Ramirez bought El Portal in 1995 with his wife, Rosalia, and son and co-owner Armando after nearly 30 years of working in the hotel/restaurant business from the bottom up — from dishwasher at the Huntington Hotel (now the Langham Huntington) to general manager at Caltech’s Athenaeum.
Over time, they took over an antique shop and a tailor located in the same alley to expand the business to Vanessa’s, a specialty dessert and coffee shop, and Yahaira’s, a smaller diner for lighter take-out food servicing the business lunch district.
“I realized I could only be my own neighbor,” Abel said.
The result has been a winning formula, transforming the arched brick corridor into a colorful alleyway one might find in colonial Mexico, filled with outdoor tables, mariachi music and passersby strolling through the popular shopping district.
El Portal also has distinguished itself from myriad Mexican restaurants now populating Pasadena with its Yucatan specialty dishes, in particular those infused with achiote and escabache sauces slow cooked in banana leaves. During those first years of business, relatives from the Yucatan would visit bearing gifts: suitcases packed with the hard-to-find herbs and achiote paste.
Rosalia, who for years toiled in the kitchen and trained the chefs — including son Armando — in the secrets of Yucatan dishes, is still busy in her home kitchen, even now aspiring to make her own version of achiote.
Abel and Rosalia also have a getaway place in Carpinteria, which Abel said he loves because “there is no Macy’s, no Target; it’s just a quiet little Pacific village.”
Armando, who also began as a dishwasher at the Athenaeum when he was 14, and the rest of the family have taken on greater roles in the business as Abel steps away, on occasion. Armando runs most of the administrative tasks, while his daughter is a hostess on the weekends and his cousin Cesar — also a chef — creates the weekly specials and keeps the kitchen in check.
A nephew, Daniel, also has joined the crew as a busboy.
“My dad has taught me how to work,” Armando said, sitting down to talk before the lunch crowds rolled in on a Friday morning. “We all did it, starting from the bottom up. He taught us that if you learn every single aspect of your job, nobody can tell you how to do it better than you.
“And if you show your employees that, they’ll respect it. If it’s a hard job, especially, respect that job.”
There’s a lot of respect, love and admiration to go around at El Portal.
General Manager Luis Ramirez, although no relation, has been with restaurant since the beginning 22 years ago, also starting as a dishwasher.
“They make me feel like I’m part of the family,” he said. “It can be a little stressful but it’s a very satisfying job. The clients are very good people, and there’s a lot of mutual respect here … that also gives me the motivation to give 100%.”
El Portal’s success also is due to its loyal clientele. At its recent 22-year anniversary party, Abel offered up free tequila tasting and appetizers for his loyal return customers over live mariachi music.
Mike Flanagan came for the evening, noting he’s known Abel for about 40 years after meeting him at the Athenaeum.
“This is a real success story. You have to admire a man like him,” he said. “Abel is very popular everywhere he goes.”
Another client, Maria Elena Ruiz, was enjoying her regular, a chocolate martini, which she usually enjoys at the bar. Ruiz also has been a patron from the restaurant’s beginnings.
“I think this place is like family away from home for a lot of people,” she said, noting the restaurant hosted her granddaughter’s 15-year birthday party, known as the quinceañera, and did a wonderful job. “They really did it perfectly, from the purple decorations to the vegetarian food she wanted. They really got all the details.”
The business is not without its challenges, however. The impending minimum wage hike of $15 by 2020 is expected to hit the restaurant industry hard, father and son note.
“It’s not that I’m opposed to raising it, but in my opinion it could have been structured differently, to be more fair,” Abel said, noting that the across-the-board increase doesn’t account for the differences between kitchen staff and wait staff, which already make a pretty good salary with tips.
Neither father nor son is sure how hard the wage increase will hit their bottom line, but Armando is already trying to offset labor costs with a take-out business and online ordering apps such as Eat24 and ChowNow. Incorporating technology into the restaurant with iPad ordering systems may also help, he noted. Sharply raising menu prices isn’t something either wants to do.
“You can only charge so much for an enchilada,” Abel said. But despite those challenges, he still loves the business.
A few years back, he considered a more permanent retirement, but truth be told, when mulling over his hobbies, he realized what he really likes to do is try new food and host big meals at his house with up to 100 friends and family. In other words, run a restaurant.
“I love to have them,” he said, laughing. “We never say no to anyone who brings one more person, we just throw one more cup of water on the beans.”
As to whether he will “retire more,” in the future, he smiles gingerly and looks around his home away from home, rearranging the flowers on the table until the vase is just so. “Naaaa, why should I? I’m happy keeping the balance.”