If you’re wondering where to find chef Jimmy Shaw these days, check the small strip mall on the southern side of Pico Boulevard, just a few steps west of Crenshaw. There’s a good chance you’ll find him there, wearing a ¡Loteria! Grill logo pullover, taking calls in the parking lot or darting in and out of an opaque storefront that has doubled as his commissary kitchen for nearly 20 years. Depending on the framing, this small space might be seen as the last stand for Shaw, once one of the city’s most well-regarded chefs with a collection of Loteria restaurants to his name — but he believes it’s more of a brand new beginning, for himself and his way of life, and for the restaurant group he’s built over the past two decades. Want to hear his side of the story? Just ride over there and ask him.
“If anybody was prepared for the pandemic, it was us,” says Shaw last week, a weary nod to the past year-plus and the untold devastation for so many people, so many restaurants. He makes the claim because of how the past half-decade has gone for himself and his business. It’s been a wobbly journey, to say the least, marked heavily by the 2018 loss of his iconic first restaurant stand inside the Original Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax. Shaw had operated Loteria there as an anchor tenant since 2002, branching out to multiple other locations across the city over the years, and even into a couple of spaces at LAX. By May of 2019 that was mostly gone, as his final standalone location in Hollywood closed for good.
“It was really bad real estate decisions,” says Shaw of his string of Loteria restaurant closures. “Bad places took the good ones down. That was not fun.”
Rolling into 2020, Shaw was already prepared to shift his focus away from sit-down restaurants to a more ad hoc approach, filling in small gaps and keeping his robust catering arm. “We had two restaurants at the airport, a good catering business, and then we had some pop-ups at the Forum, Sony, and Universal, on the lots,” says Shaw. Then Amazon announced that it would be killing its 365 sub-brand, effectively axing his Atlanta deals. The pandemic hit Los Angeles in full force just weeks later. “Production closes, the Forum cancels our shows, and airports are dead,” he says, a cascade of losses that all hit within the span of a few days in March 2020. “It was devastating.”
So why is chef Shaw smiling, happy to chat in this parking lot off Pico Boulevard?
“My mantra right now is: I want no stress. I had a lot of that before the pandemic,” he says. He waves to the colorful window that fronts his onetime commissary kitchen, which has been changed now to act as a place for bulk orders but also for takeaway Loteria meals, a kind of one-restaurant ghost kitchen, with a marketplace for sauces and jars of preserved items to come soon.
He’s still employing some of his staff, including those who have been with him since day one. “There’s a lot of fun here,” says Shaw. “We’re reconnecting with people. My only question is: How much more of this do I even want to take on?”
For now, Shaw says, he’s happy to bring back many of the Loteria staple dishes, to watch longtime customers come meet him in the parking lot to hand off a meal. These are the same burritos, tacos, bowls, and larger plates that Loteria has offered for decades, but (as is customary these days) served from an app instead of a restaurant. He believes there’s room to scale Loteria back up in this new way, to offer small ‘ventanitas’ across the city for those looking to taste a Jimmy Shaw meal again. Not a ghost kitchen, per se, but a takeaway window that still feels familiar. But that’s all for a later date. Right now, Shaw is happy to be back in LA, happy to be among his staff, cooking the food he grew up on in Mexico City. He’s happy to be happy, really — but with one big caveat.
“Our food has always connected with people in a way that makes them come back,” says Shaw, “but I’m not in any kind of hungry desire to have a bunch of locations right now.”