Zócalo, the new restaurant in Isla Vista that opened on April 1, 2022, was something that the Hernández family had doubts about opening. The idea of the restaurant started when the previous tenants approached Jaime Hernández Sr. when they were closing down their business and offered the space. At first, Hernández Sr. was unsure about opening the restaurant, but after a year, he accepted. The family felt like it was a sign that Jaime Hernández Jr., their son, had finished his last UC Santa Barbara final the same day and time that the previous tenants were moving out. They felt like this was a sign that they should open Zócalo due to the timing of the two events.
“We thought, If God wants, in March if Jaime Jr. finishes [his] school career then it will be real. If not, then really we don’t want to. And everything happened exactly like that,” Jaime Hernández Sr. said.
Mexico City is home to the plaza Zócalo, where people celebrate, and everyone feels the annual celebratory yell on Mexico’s Independence Day. Now, Isla Vista has their own Zócalo.
Zócalo opened to integrate authentic Mexican food into Isla Vista. Jaime Hernández Jr., a recent UCSB first-generation chemistry graduate, spearheaded the administrative part of the business. While he never saw this as a part of his future, now that he is here, he sees this as a backup plan.
“The plan of this restaurant is to have a retirement plan for my parents. They took care of me when I was little and this is my way of taking care of them. If it works, I can go and have a career in Chemistry,” Jaime Hernández Jr. said.
The family immigrated to the United States and settled down in Carpinteria after their son Jaime was born. Olivia Hernández, the mother of the family, grew up in a small town part of the Mexican States and has worked in restaurants as a prep cook. Meanwhile, Jaime Hernández Sr. grew up in Mexico City and also worked in many restaurants. These restaurant industry jobs gave them the experience to co-manage Zócalo.
“Since my childhood, I worked as a dishwasher. I started standing on a box since I was so small. This was in Mexico and there I worked my way up in the kitchen. I was a cook and bartender, and here in the US, I worked in a lot of restaurants,” Jaime Hernández Sr. said.
Olivia Hernández has also worked in the restaurant industry as a prep cook.
While Jaime Hernández Jr. covered the administrative work while completing his studies, the entire family was also involved in the restaurant.
“Everyone is a part of the restaurant. My son is the one that does the technical things like how the menu functions, and he also is in charge of everything administrative. But, he also helps out in the kitchen,” said Jaime Hernández Sr.
Their daughter, Hannia Hernández, a UC Los Angeles student, is in charge of their social media presence. While she cannot be present to help with the day-to-day tasks, she has found a way to help the business despite the distance.
The youngest son, Edwin Hernández, designed the website and is in the process of designing merchandise.
“Some people take months to learn the cashier system of a restaurant but he learned it in an hour,” Jaime Hernández Jr. said.
As they neared finally opening their doors, they realized they wanted to make Zócalo unique.
“Walk into a restaurant in Isla Vista and no one says ‘Hi’ to you anymore. We want this to feel like a home,” said Jaime Hernández Sr.
Besides the restaurant’s atmosphere, they wanted to make their menu unique as well.
“Breakfast was also one of those things that we thought sometimes college students can’t enjoy breakfast because the morning passed by them. There is a lot of desire for bagels in the afternoon with bacon or chipotle cream cheese. We can see in the evening that our bagels are almost sold out,” Jaime Hernández Jr. said.
Along with bagels, and the more traditional Mexican entrees like tacos, burritos and enchiladas, Zócalo offers a menu that includes a variety of drinks ranging from traditional “aguas frescas” (juices) to their house-made horchata. Additionally, they are constantly thinking of new things to add to the menu and ways to experiment with different foods.
With this menu, Zócalo prioritizes and prides itself on using the best and freshest ingredients. Olivia Hernández laughs as she tells us that while she won’t give us her recipe, she emphasizes that everything is natural.
“Everything is natural. Including the seasonings, when you walk into the kitchen, the only thing you will find is garlic salt, but all the ingredients are natural,” Olivia Hernández said.
Jaime Hernández Sr. agreed with that statement.
“We do not grab any kind of meat from the store. We try to buy the best meat ad we know that while it may be a little more expensive, we want to give our clients the best so they can feel the freshness in the food.”
Once they opened their doors to the Isla Vista community, they realized how much of an impact this had on their lives.
“Yes, it does change your life because when we started, I felt like this was too much after my job. But, one day, I arrived, and I felt like the food carried an extra ingredient, love.”
Besides their unique menu, they also wanted to offer this space to the community.
“Once, a girl told me, ‘I came here yesterday and am embarrassed to come again.’ And I told her not to be embarrassed. I had some guava so I offered her some and she was like ‘really?’ and when I said yes she told me that she felt so much love and I was left feeling like wow,” Olivia Hernández said.
Zócalo in Mexico City reminds the family of their home. Now, they want Zócalo to be a taste of home for college students.
“Zócalo is a place where everyone comes together. Where people can share and come to a place that feels like home. You can come and taste the seasoning that you miss from home.”