Rosa Olamendi, the owner of Olamendi’s Mexican Restaurant, comes from a long line of strong independent women and she’s proud of it.
Her grandmother started a restaurant in Puebla, Mexico, in the early 1900s. Her fame was such that she was even called upon by Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta to serve them her exceptional chiles en nogada.
This woman was far ahead of her time because she believed in healthy cooking and prepared all her food with olive oil, specially ordered from Spain, at a time when everyone else was using lard. She lived to be 92 and died with a full head of black hair.
Rosa’s mother was educated by an order of Spanish nuns who encouraged a love of learning and a sophisticated worldview, which she passed on to her children, urging them to get out of their small village, see the world and make something of themselves. “When I grew up and traveled, I always felt I was taking my mother with me,” Rosa says.
In what was becoming the family tradition, Rosa’s parents opened a small restaurant and meat market in a little town called Cholula, close to Puebla. It was there, at the tender age of 6, that her father taught her how to count the money and balance the receipts. Although dyslexic, she was good at math.
She went to school during the week and worked in the restaurant on the weekends.
In 1966, at the age of 15, after finishing high school, she came north to live with her older brother George in Dana Point. Together they opened the first Olamendi’s Mexican Restaurant next to the Department of Motor Vehicles in San Clemente.
It had only four tables and a counter but there were surprisingly few good Mexican restaurants in the area during those days and they soon had long lines of people out the door, eager for their tacos and enchiladas.
Their success led to them to take the next big and scary step, which was to buy a restaurant in Capistrano Beach. George was worried that it was too big an undertaking but Rosa bravely said they should go for it and they did. She and her sister Gina did the cooking and George ran the business.
Rosa also had a day job. This determined, energetic lady began at Mission Hospital in the surgical housekeeping department and worked her way up, learning as she went along, taking a course at Saddleback and eventually becoming a valued technician in the operating room. She worked two jobs for 18 years.
There came a time when she felt ready to strike out on her own. In 1985, she found a space for lease upstairs in the Village Fair on Coast Highway. Planning to open her own restaurant presented many challenges; including the fact that she was up against two kinds of prejudice in attempting to get a small business loan: racism and sexism.
It was at this very same time that we tried to get a loan to open A La Carte. We had a well-designed business plan, were property owners, Anglo, married to doctors but we couldn’t get one either. At the city, applying for a business license, some old boy behind the counter said to us, “Why do you want to do this? Just go home and make dinner for your husbands.” Imagine how difficult it must have been for Rosa.
Undeterred, she used up all of her savings to remodel and bought her equipment on time. Gina, who was her mentor and a second mother, helped her to negotiate a lease and to design the space. She then worked with Rosa for five years and all their money went back into the business.
Speaking of strong women, Gina now owns her own landscaping company in Washington and has clients like BP. Also, one of her other sisters is an international lawyer, who is a sub-secretary of foreign affairs in Mexico.
Olamendi’s in Laguna opened in 1986 with recipes from Rosa’s grandmother and mother, including the famous chiles en nogada, as well as mole poblano and pollo a la Veracruzana. Her special dishes include tequila shrimp and Rosa’s steak. A famous French chef once came to visit Olamendi’s, and he and Rosa exchanged cooking lessons. She devised her tequila shrimp from this collaboration while he took what he had learned about Mexican cooking back to his restaurant on the Champs Elysees.
Very particular about the food she buys, Rosa insists that everything must be very fresh and hormone free — and is willing to pay a premium for the very best products.
For instance, she uses only California produce, white shrimp from Mexico and red snapper from Oregon. She continues her grandmother’s tradition of healthy cooking and proudly displays an Award of Excellence for 2008 from the Orange County Department of Health.
Rosa herself developed diabetes 10 years ago and has learned to control it without injections.
“Everybody who comes into Olamendi’s is on a diet,” she says. “They just don’t know it.”
She’s very careful about limiting bad fats and using only the necessary amount of good fat. Also featured is a small light menu of 300-calorie dishes suitable for diabetics and weight watchers. Rosa says she will cook a special meal for anyone with a particular health-related food issue.
Over the years, she has taught classes in diabetic cooking and fed, at no charge, the patients from the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. Fire victims also benefited from her generosity.
Rosa feels a strong loyalty to her customers, whom she calls her family. They come in often and sometimes she must play the role of psychologist as well as chef — admitting with a grin that she takes the woman’s side in every dispute.
Rosa’s determination, commitment and caring attitude have made Olamendi’s a Laguna landmark for 22 years.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com