On the Line: Mario Melendez of Rasta Rita/Rasta Taco

When I began researching Rasta Rita, I found it had the same owner as Rasta Taco. With a strong catering game, a literal hole-in-the-wall in Laguna, and another spot in the works in Jamaica, Mario Melendez knows what it means to be determined. I spend this week learning about the Rasta brand and where hard work can take you.

Favorite meal growing up:
Without sounding completely cliche, my vote is going to go towards tacos. Growing up in a large family, we always muscle then jockeyed ourselves in the position to see who can eat the most tacos when we had taco night. I’m one of five siblings; four boys and one girl. So you can imagine the circus that went on during taco night at our house.

Your best recent food find:
I enjoy spending free time aimlessly walking around downtown San Diego. They have really cool restaurants, and just an overall, awesome vibe. Recently, I stumbled upon this shawarma place called The Sultan’s Shawarma. So damn good. And hey, lookie here— it reminds me of a taco.

You went from founding a clothing line to tacos and margaritas. What was your train of thought in doing so?
There really was no train of thought. It just kind of happened on its own. At a time of total confusion (keep in mind that when my clothing business closed down, it was literally months after 9/11), a lot of people didn’t know what the hell they were doing. I certainly was part of that. It took me a couple of years to figure out anything. It wasn’t until I was spending time in Jamaica that I brainchilded the taco catering business.

However, the lessons that I learned in the apparel industry gave me a huge advantage over most people. In particular, branding. When you have to put together a collection to show a buyer, it has to be a complete thought. I can’t just walk in with a hat. I have to walk in with the hat, shirt, shorts and entire ensemble. So when I started catering, I was able to use that notion of putting together a collection in being able to present successfully to our clients. And that really is where the branding and the food share the relationship.

Years later, I actually think being in the apparel industry gave me the chops to run a successful restaurant that had a theme, vision and overall vibe. The margarita truck is a whole other story. She (the truck) is her own thing. I never in a million years thought that I would be driving around in a margarita truck.

How is the Margarita Lady related to Rasta Rita?
The Margarita Lady is the sister to Rita. I could not do just another Rita truck. And since this truck is a totally different make and model, it would’ve sounded and looked very silly. I try to maintain true to the ’73 year, and I thought adding a bit more fun 70s-style artwork would’ve been far more believable to somebody who wanted to book her services. I really enjoy a good story, and this truck has a great story. I could not just make another truck. It had to be a truck with the story behind it.

Tell me about the brick-and-mortar in Laguna Beach.
The brick-and-mortar restaurant in Laguna Beach is the smallest restaurant in California. It’s as unique as the company is. It doesn’t belong there. And has no right being in Laguna Beach. It’s just this funky, little 220-square-foot restaurant. It was so wrong that it was perfectly right. I mean, it’s a takeout window. That’s it. There’s no seats, with the exception of the patio. When I found that location, it was a barbershop, and then a hair salon. They had two chairs in there; it was that small.

I built the whole thing myself; I even built the patio myself. The landlord— I love the dude. He gave me a chance. I was looking at locations for years. However, most landlords won’t touch a restaurant. Especially a new concept restaurant. This guy, however, didn’t care. He just says, “You want it? Take it. It’s yours. Don’t bug me. Don’t ask me for money. It’s all you.” God, love him for that. Who wants a nosy, goddamn landlord? I truly believe that that restaurant is the best location of any restaurant anywhere in Southern Orange County. It’s ground zero Laguna Beach. And Laguna Beach is the most beautiful city we have in South Orange County. And we are smack dab in the middle of it.

What do you recommend for first-timers to Rasta Taco?
The entire idea behind the restaurant in downtown Laguna Beach was to make a good taco at an affordable price. Completely keep it simple. Over the past few years, people try to develop these weird and interesting tacos, but at the end of the day, people just want a damn good taco. We want something that’s not going to make them go to the bank and get a loan out to eat. And in Laguna Beach, there’s not a lot of cheap places to eat. So we fill that gap. Everything on the menu is awesome. And everything is super unique.

We have these really awesome protein wraps, for people who want to reduce the carbs. The pastor is awesome. It has pineapple chunks and bacon bits. Super tasty. Completely affordable, and does the trick.

Most undervalued ingredient.
I’m a big fan of cumin. It has such a bizarre and interesting and flavorful taste. You can add that to anything and it gives just a really great pop.

Where was your most recent meal?
My most recent meal was this afternoon’s lunch in downtown San Diego in the Little Italy area. There’s a very old-school pizza grotto called Filippi’s. I love that place. They’ve got the best goddamn garlic cheese bread and six dollar torpedo sandwiches. You can’t beat it. It has the old-school Italian vibe, the red and white checkered plastic tablecloths, wine bottles hanging from the ceiling. It’s dark; a little dingy. And the servers are super awesome.

You can eat lunch there, and fill up for a few bucks. I love that. Sometimes people make eating this big goddamn thing about eating. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to eat well.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
I think Orange County has an advantage over a lot of other areas because there’s a lot of opportunities for people to pilot an idea. Since we all know that there is a lot of money in this area, you have access to investors. I never had any luck with that. However, there are a lot of people who do. Opening a restaurant in Orange County is a hell of a lot easier than opening a restaurant in a small town in the middle of nowhere. I believe Orange County is a great spot to start any business, actually. The combination of climate, a clientele, a favorable landscape and technology.

Opening my restaurant in Laguna Beach opened the door for the new restaurant in Jamaica. I have been working with Chris Blackwell’s organization, and we should be open sometime this year. This is also a very small space on the water in Ocho Rios.

Best advice for someone wanting to start their own business.
The best advice I could give is one that people probably hear all the time.
You can’t give up. Never. Ever.
Never surrender. Never give up.
Just be gnarly. My girlfriend calls me the gnarly tyrant.

Find something, and go deep. Don’t get crazy and all over the place. Just do one thing super well. And when you start making money, then you can start doing all the artsy bullshit stuff you really want to do. In the meantime, focus on making money. It’s not difficult to do. It’s got to be creative, and go with your gut.

Favorite places to eat.
I really enjoy street food. And I mean all types; not just tacos. I can spend an afternoon walking around Tijuana just as easily as I can go to downtown Los Angeles or cruise around New York. I love street food.

When I lived in Europe, I lived off street food. Same thing in Paris. When I lived in Mexico, street food. It’s always been my go-to. And I’ve got a stomach like a billy goat, so I never get sick.

Where did you grow up?
I had a very unique upbringing. I grew up in Dana Point. However, I went to boarding school from eighth grade to twelfth grade. I spent five years in boarding school. Shortly thereafter, I joined the Navy and was stationed in San Francisco. I was in the Persian Gulf War. After I received my honorable discharge, I moved to Mexico and taught preschool English. I spent two years in Mexico. Afterwards, and in the middle of all this, I was going to school to receive my Bachelor of Arts.

After Mexico, I moved to Spain and studied there and received my Masters in Business. I spent two years in Spain. When I came back “home”, I came back to Dana Point.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
Some of my fondest childhood memories usually involve the beach. I was a total water baby. I try to be one now, too. Just long days at the beach. Skimboarding and surfing and playing around. I miss those super long summer days at the beach. Leaving when the sun goes down. You got that little burnt feeling on your skin. And feel absolutely clean because you’ve been playing in the water all day. I miss that.

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
My breakfasts are pretty boring. Usually it’s a cup of coffee. If I’m feeling super hungry, I’ll go get a donut. I’m not a big breakfast type of person. If I eat too big, too early in the day, I want to take a nap. A coffee and a banana will give me the charge that I need.

Last thing you looked up online.
I was looking for a bottle opener to put on the margarita truck. I can’t seem to find one, and I don’t want to get one made in China. I’m trying to find a really cool, classic interesting one. You know those bottle openers that are stuck on the wall? That’s the type.

You have a day to yourself; what would you be doing?
If I had a day all to myself, and weather permitting, I’ll be sitting on the beach chair down in South Laguna with my books. No cell phone. No nothing. It’s easy to reduce the amount of stress and anxiety by spending a few hours down at the beach. But I’m talking one of the private coves. I don’t want to go to one of those beaches where there’s a billion people. That sounds like hell to me.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
The hardest lesson I ever learned always came around by losing money. I’ll tell you this: you lose money, you’ll brighten up really quick. Losing money will make you smarter than you can ever imagine, because you don’t want to lose it again.

What profession would you like to try?
I would like to have my hand in architecture. I really believe I could’ve been an awesome architect. I was studying for a while, but didn’t have the chops to stay in. Math is definitely not my strongest suit. I just like designing.

Learn more about Mario’s businesses at www.rastataco.com.

A contributing writer for OC Weekly, Anne Marie freelances for multiple online and print publications, and guest judges for culinary competitions. A Bay Area transplant, she graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management from Cal Poly Pomona. Find her on Instagram as brekkiefan.

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