When chefs Omar Lopez and Antonio Luquin worked together in the kitchen at Sons of Liberty Alehouse in San Leandro, “¿Porque no?” (“Why not?”) became a common refrain between them. These days, the phrase informs how they run their new permanent pop-up, Porque No? Tacos?
“We want to be able to answer it to anyone when they come here,” said Lopez, speaking about the name of their new venture in Oakland. “If people ask, ‘Are you still serving breakfast?’ or ‘Can I get a vegan burrito?’ or ‘Can I have a burrito without the tortilla?’ we want to say ‘Why not?’ If we have it, we’ll make it for you.”
Porque No? Tacos is housed in Pucquio, a dinner-only Peruvian restaurant that just marked its sixth anniversary at the southern end of College Avenue in Rockridge. Porque No? serves breakfast and lunch, every day of the week.
In the morning, there are items like a bagel and cream cheese ($3.25) or a croissant sandwich ($5.95), but the table-service restaurant has quickly become known for its chilaquiles ($13.50). Made with free-range eggs, the dish consist of tortilla chips in a red sauce with the eggs, refried beans, avocado, cotija cheese, sour cream and onion. But classic American breakfast lovers take note: Porque No? does a mean French toast with fresh fruit ($8.25) as well as chicken and waffles ($14.95).
“We’re trying to stay as close to Mexican cuisine but while also serving American breakfast,” said Lopez. “These two cuisines blend really well together.”
Lunch fare includes tacos ($3) with steak, chorizo, grilled chicken, pastor (spit-roasted pork), lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head). The recipes come directly from Luquin’s family.
Porque No? tries to be as organic as possible, and makes everything fresh each morning.
“The rub we use for the pastor is a masterpiece,” said Lopez. “It goes back over 25 years from Antonio’s family. Same with the pulled pork for the torta. It’s not easy to have recipes like this in the States. You have to pay someone in Mexico if they have a recipe that good; they won’t just give it away or put it on the internet. These recipes are worth gold.”
A super taco ($5) comes dressed with pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream and pepper-jack cheese in a lightly grilled tortilla. Burritos ($9 for veggie, $9.50 with meat, $13 for super) are grilled in clarified butter (a healthier option than oil or lard), which Lopez said gives the flour tortilla a bit of crunch and helps the ingredients stay put and not fall out all over the plate. The tortas (Mexican sandwiches) are filled with either ham or pulled pork ($10-12). Both burritos and tortas come with either tortilla chips or house-fried potato chips.
Everything is made fresh daily, except for the tortillas. But that might change if business continues to pick up. The team plans to offer scratch-made tortillas as soon as they can afford to hire someone.
When Lopez was growing up in Aguascalientes, he was often chased out of the kitchen — traditionally considered a woman’s domain in Mexico — by his mother with a wooden spoon. But as an adult in the States, Lopez found work in the restaurant world. He has years of experience from working at Chop Bar, Bocanova and Kincaid’s in Oakland and East End in Alameda.
Luquin spent many hours of his childhood in Guadalajara sleeping beneath his parents’ taco cart. Still, when he married, his mother shared her recipes with his wife, not him. But like Lopez, in the U.S., he started a career in the kitchen, first cooking at places like Denny’s. And after 14 years of making tacos for parties, he’s also become known as a “taco specialist” among his friends and family.
“The rub we use for the pastor is a masterpiece… You have to pay someone in Mexico if they have a recipe that good; they won’t just give it away or put it on the internet. These recipes are worth gold.” — Omar Lopez
Lopez dreamt of opening a restaurant, where breakfast could be served all day. Meanwhile, Luquin dreamt of upscaling his taco operation. At first, they considered a truck, but when presented with the option to share an existing restaurant space not normally open during the day, they knew they had found their spot.
They opened Porque No? Tacos June 21, and have already found a steady following in the neighborhood. At first, they were going to open at 7 a.m., but when potential customers – both firefighters and Safeway employees coming off the night shifts – saw the chefs prepping inside and asked for a hearty breakfast before 7, Lopez and Luquin’s answer was “Porque no?” They now open for breakfast at 5 a.m. (except Sunday, when the restaurant opens at 8 a.m.)
“This is our first time running a business and our first time doing it together, and we’re figuring it out as we go,” said Lopez.
Despite Porque No?’s pop-up status, Lopez and Luquin plan to be there long term, as the arrangement is so far working out well for everyone. Closing at 2 p.m. (5 p.m. on Sundays) allows the Pucquio chefs enough time to prep for dinner service.
The kitchen is small, but open, allowing Lopez and Luquin a full view of the dining room, to greet each person as they come in and see whether customers are happy.
Lopez also makes it his mission to check on every table. (Of the two, Lopez has the better English, but both chefs believe strongly in this kind of customer service.) Not only does he ensure the food is to everyone’s liking, but he often learns something from these interactions.
“Sometimes someone will ask me to do something special for them and it just gives me more ideas. Especially with us being this new, with a lot of people coming to try what we do, we want to make sure that if we can do better, we are. The chef that tells you he knows everything already is lying. In the kitchen, you’re learning something new every day, and this is what’s keeping me in the kitchen.”
But perhaps even more important is the feedback from happy customers.
“Seeing happy faces and people enjoying and having a good time fills my heart,” said Lopez. “We want everyone to leave here happy. If they’re not happy, we’re not happy. If there’s something we can fix right then, we’ll do it.” ¿Y Porque no?
Porque No? Tacos is open 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday