When it comes to a Mexican dinner plate, “everybody eats the taco,” says Ricardo Beas.
But—as the operator of the popular Mexican restaurant Ricardo’s Place in San Juan Capistrano explains—“it has to be good.”
After earning his 15th Golden Horseshoe Award for Best Tacos in San Juan in 2022, it’s safe to say that Beas knows what makes a good taco.
“It goes back to the consistency and the tradition,” Beas says when asked what he believes San Juan residents enjoy about his tacos. “Right now, nobody makes the crispy tacos, and they’re moving away from traditions, and we stay with those.”
The concept of tradition, and maintaining it, is certainly seeped into the restaurant’s ethos. From the tacos to the salsas, many of the restaurant’s offerings are rooted in family traditions that all started with Beas’ grandmother.
“In order to satisfy the needs of the customers, you cannot only have one kind of salsa, because everybody’s different,” he notes, adding: “My grandmother, she always had salsa on the table, different salsas … every time we went there, salsas, beans, cheese, tortillas; you never went hungry, so that’s why tacos are very important to me.”
As Beas points out, it’s not enough to just have great tacos; there should be a variety of salsas to pair with those tacos that Ricardo’s has to offer—likely one of the reasons The Capistrano Dispatch readers have also recognized Ricardo’s as having the Best Salsa for 13 of the past 16 years.
“There’s not one combination on making tacos. That’s why people get educated here that they now say, ‘Oh, I want that kind of salsa, I don’t want that one, I want those two,’ ” he says, adding: “We have a lot of choices on salsas.”
On the taco menu, customers have the mainstay options of carne asada, chicken, carnitas, and even potato—a favorite of Beas’ growing up in Mexico. In recent years, Ricardo’s has introduced a salmon taco, which has attracted those looking for something on the healthier side.
“We are going to keep the traditional ones, but we have added up a lot of tacos,” Beas says. “One of my favorites is a potato taco, because I grew up eating potato tacos.”
Beas adds, though, that the shrimp tacos have become a customer favorite.
“Once people order it, they love it,” the 64-year-old restaurant owner boasts.
However, he says, the crispy beef tacos are still the No. 1 seller.
Asked what sort of pairing goes well with the shrimp taco, Beas recommends “The Camala,” which has charbroiled ingredients and has a unique taste.
“Personally, I like that, because it has a connection to my grandma,” he says. “And then we have a little spicy salsa roja picante that is only red peppers that I like to put in a little bit. The idea is that you mix three salsas in a taco, so you kind of find your own little recipe. That, to me, is how I look at it.”
The restaurant overall has been a San Juan favorite since opening 20 years ago this April. In fact, when Ricardo’s opened in 2003, Beas had already been familiar with the building, previously a coffee shop. At 14 years old, he worked at the shop as a dishwasher.
“It was my first job here in America, living the American dream,” he recalls, adding: “I was a dishwasher; it was a very interesting job. A lot of dishes, a lot of pots to wash.”
The family-owned business in San Juan was one of five locations that Beas and his mother and siblings had operated since 1987—when they opened their first restaurant, La Cocina de Ricardo, in Mission Viejo.
With his mother running the restaurants as the main chef, Beas held multiple positions such as dishwasher, cook, busboy, server, and then manager.
“I did everything. I learned from scratch the reality of running a business on your own,” says Beas, who moved to America when he was 12 years old. He adds that “this is still part of the family structure that we had at the start … this is still a family venture. The philosophy was to create work for the family.”
Over the years, the family would shutter the other locations, focusing solely on the San Juan spot. And about six years ago, Beas took the reins of the restaurant, as his mother and sister had retired from the family business.
Beas says that when his sister—who was trained in the kitchen by their mother—retired, “it was a big blow for the family, because I had to step up without my mom, without my sister.”
“Well, how is the restaurant going to fare? And we’ve done well, because we have kept the philosophy of the recipes, and because we are there in the kitchen making sure there is a consistency,” he says.
While consistency and tradition are integral to the restaurant’s success, Beas says the restaurant has been blessed with chefs and cooks whom he’s empowered to be creative and develop their own salsa recipes.
“They become very creative, and I ask them, occasionally, ‘Why don’t you make up your own salsa?’ So, I give that freedom so they can explore a new salsa,” Beas says.
Sometimes, the salsa hits, but other times, he acknowledges, the recipe can be too spicy or it’s simply not practical for the restaurant to maintain daily.
“I always look at the practicality that we can be able to maintain the recipe, and it has to, because making eight different salsas a day is not easy, especially, we make a lot of the ones we serve on the table,” Beas says.
“That’s one of the secrets, that you open the door for the new ideas and the new generation,” he adds. “That’s what we want without losing our touch with the ones that are traditional. Traditional ones have stayed, and then a few of them have come and gone.”
Commenting on the support from the San Juan Capistrano community all these years, Beas says he feels blessed.
“I’m very thankful for (their votes as Best in San Juan), because the support they give us, they keep us in business, and that’s why we strive to do the best that we can.”