A California transplant is hoping to bring authentic and healthy Mexican food to Uptown Westerville.
Jose Becerra is opening Phatt Taco – not fat taco, he emphasizes – as a way to put "a whole new spin on Mexican food."
A northern California native who spent most of his career planning "healthy food concepts" for tech companies in Silicon Valley, Becerra moved to central Ohio to do a similar line of work for Abercrombie and Fitch in New Albany. He eventually decided he wanted to open his own restaurant using the same ideas he stressed to companies, he said.
"My life has been all about healthy foods," he said. "I wanted to apply those principles to Mexican food, without losing what makes Mexican food so good."
He ran Phatt Wraps on the Ohio State University campus prior to developing this venture.
He said it was popular and doing well – especially with student athletes – but it declined when Ohio State changed its meal-plan policies.
For his next attempt, he's opening Phatt Taco in The Brick Walk Shops at 20 S. State St. in Uptown.
And in Westerville – where he lives and appreciates his five-minute bicycle ride to work – he said he thinks he's found his perfect spot.
"I love this little pocket," he said of his location. "And there's no other Mexican restaurant here that does what we do."
In his small location, the biggest challenge was the lack of commercial ventilation setup or a hood system.
At first, Becerra said he thought the lack of the system would either cost him thousands in installation or prevent his store opening permanently. But after months of experimentation, he found a way of cooking his meats that doesn't require grilling, frying or sauteing but still gives him the meat he needs.
He said he tried it out at a taco contest last year and won, signaling to him that his braised meat was good to go.
"That's when it hit me," he said.
"If the average person doesn't notice we're cooking our meats in this way, maybe we've got something here."
So with his unique cooking style and focus on fresh and healthy food, Becerra said he's confident he can fill a niche in Westerville.
"It's going to be like Chipotle on steroids," he said.
Becerra said Phatt Taco will use fresh ingredients for a menu that changes with the seasons. He said he expects a fast-food style so people can eat there at lunch and a menu that keeps its most expensive options -- usually involving steak -- around the $8 mark.
The shop won't have any high-fructose corn syrup drinks, and will serve many of its items in bowls rather than in a burrito or tortilla. Even the tostadas used will be gluten-free, he said.
"For a lot of the things we serve, a lot of other 'Mexican' places would wrap (them) in a big burrito," Becerra said.
That healthy approach is one that's been reinforced within Becerra over his whole life. His mother was a nutritionist and his father was a health-food eater who would never let his children eat at McDonald's, he said.
Becerra said he hopes to bring some of his West-Coast sensibilities to central Ohio.
"If you eat meat and potatoes all your life, at some point it's going to catch up with you," he said.
Becerra is shooting for an opening in July but said he still has hope for a late-June opening.
For more information, visit Phatt Taco's Facebook page.