Restaurant: Cha Restaurants
Javier Hurtado came to Portland from Mexico at the age of sixteen and has quickly become an important figure in the local food and Mexican cuisine arenas with his Cha restaurants – including Cha! Cha! Cha! and Cha Taqueria & Bar. Javier is building his own farm-to-table supply chain and working to support a variety of environmental causes. We spoke with Javier about his background and how he has built up the Cha chain.
How did you get involved in the food industry, and how did Cha restaurants start?
My family is in the farming industry, which was how I got into food. I was raised in Mexico, and my mother grew up on an isolated, self-sustained cattle farm in the middle of nowhere. My father also had butcher shops and a big cattle farm. I worked with my dad in the butcher shops before I came here, and really my whole family is involved in either agriculture or the cattle business. When we have gatherings it’s usually a huge cookout.
I came to Portland for school at PSU, and I always thought I wanted to work in the finance industry. After about a year working I figured out that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My cousin and my brother had opened a restaurant, and I was really attracted to that scene. So I decided I was going to open my own restaurant. I found a space over by PSU, and it was really perfect timing. It was very fast – I quit my job in February and we opened the first Cha! Cha! Cha! at the end of March 2001.
Has the restaurant or its offerings changed from the beginning?
We definitely started more conventional, for a couple reasons. The industry back then didn’t offer a lot of access to organic and farm-direct products, so unfortunately we had to buy our food from a lot of bigger purveyors. The first few years I was also really learning the restaurant industry and how everything worked in the food chain. Once I got a better grasp of it, I started reaching out to get higher quality, naturally raised and more sustainable products. Our options now are so much better – in terms of farms, wineries, breweries, and organics companies all working directly. Our overhead has increased, but that’s a price we’re willing to pay. It’s a matter of supporting the environment, and good people doing good things. I think every day we take a step forward on quality – it’s always a work in progress.
What do you think sets your restaurants apart from others?
I think what makes us different is our price point along with the quality of the food. I’ve always been a firm believer in finding value in what I buy. Here, eight bucks can get you two wild salmon tacos. They’re really good, and really good quality for that price. We also have a lot more healthy options, so you can eat delicious Mexican food without all the grease and fat. We like to eat healthy and we want to do the same thing for our guests – provide healthy, natural and super-clean Mexican food. I want to change the perspective of Mexican food that people have that it’s greasy and fattening. It’s actually very clean food, but it’s been tainted in a way by all of the heavy cheeses, sauces and poor quality meats. We want to showcase what Mexican truly is with our dishes.
What’s your favorite dish to serve?
It goes in phases. In the spring and summer, I do a lot of salad dishes. My favorite food and thing to cook are ceviches, because you can get really creative and use all sorts of different things – crab, salmon, wild cod. I do ceviches because I can play with so many different seasonal ingredients.
What does the future hold for Cha restaurants?
We’re opening a new restaurant in the South Waterfront, so that’s our big project right now. We also have farmland in Estacada where we’re going to look into building up our own supply chain. We acquired the land about eight years ago, but needed to take some time to clean the soil because of the conventional farming that had been done on that land before. We started doing cattle for the restaurants, though our plan for the future is to focus more on agriculture and permaculture. This year we’re going to expand to have more variety of vegetables – corn, pepper, cucumbers, kale, lettuces, tomatoes, and radishes – so we can do more salads.
I also see the menus in the restaurants changing more toward seasonal availability. I want to be able to trace where everything that we’re using came from. I want to focus on what we have right now and how we can improve on that. Eventually down the road I have a dream to open a collaborative studio, where people can come in to be together and learn, where we invite other chefs to do collaborations. I also want to make more alliances where I’m sourcing good products from people who are doing great things in the organic and sustainable realm.
Cha Taqueria & Bar
305 NW 21st Ave #203
Portland, OR 97209
Cha! Cha! Cha!
Multiple locations – see list on website.
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