October 6, 2013 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Abel Ramirez
What’s not to smile about when you’re a member of a marching band that has been chosen for the Tournament of Roses Parade? For the group from Puebla, Mexico this past New Year’s Day, however, their collective grins may have had a lot to do with the dinner hosted at El Portal by owner Abel Ramirez and his staff. As Ramirez explains, it’s an annual tradition to host one of the bands and to recruit his chefs, food purveyors and the spouses of his employees to donate their talents, resources and time to a memorable evening.
Says Ramirez, “I’ve been involved with the Tournament of Roses for over 28 years and am well aware that everyone who comes to perform in this magnificent event is paying their own expenses. We had 230 band members this year – along with parents and chaperones – and, in gratitude, they played a special performance for us in the courtyard right outside the restaurant. What a treat!”
Ramirez is no stranger to the priceless joys derived from being part of one’s community and from giving back through volunteerism and charitable contributions. “Like everyone else, we’ve all been facing challenges lately, and it’s very sad to me to see so many area businesses such as restaurants and arts organizations having to close their doors. Whenever the mail comes, we have a stack of bills and an even bigger stack of requests for donations from organizations asking for help in order to survive through these tough times. We not only try to help as many as we can but we have also been fortunate in running our three restaurants that we have been able to manage expenses so we can support the families of those who work for us and have not had the necessity to let go of anyone.”
Pasadena’s Playhouse District, he points out, has attracted quite a few more restaurants – and noteworthy competition – than existed when El Portal, Yahaira’s and Vanessa’s Café first opened. To his dismay, the region has also attracted no shortage of taco trucks that park within a few scant blocks of local eateries. “While they certainly have as much right to earn a living as anyone else, I question if there is a double standard insofar as the permits, licenses and health regulations imposed by the City of Pasadena on brick-and-mortar businesses. Not only are food trucks not held to these same regulations but they go somewhere else to spend whatever cash they make here.”
Whether or not the city eventually acts on such disparities, Ramirez remains committed to keeping his menus, his special events and the ambiance of his trio of venues exciting and inviting. “We have an excellent team and we have fun being creative and constantly thinking of new things to do in order to attract new customers and to keep our existing customers pleased and surprised. Our special breakfasts at Yahaira’s, for example, always bring in a crowd. Our annual event, ‘Sangria, Tapas and Paella,’ was again a great success. As for Vanessa’s, it’s not only a popular place for espressos and pastries but many of the local book clubs are now discovering it’s a fun alternative to gathering at someone’s house or having to pay for a meeting room.” Vanessa’s, he adds, can also accommodate some of the spillover from large crowds at El Portal and Yahaira’s or when inclement weather clears the courtyard that all three restaurants share.
“Doing what you love and what makes you happy,” is both Ramirez’ philosophy and his secret to feeling young. “Retirement is much too far in the distance to think about,” he admits, quipping in postscript that, “If I’m not at El Portal for a few days, I feel as if I’m missing my own family and all the gossip associated with their weddings, new babies and vacations. What would I do with myself if I just stayed home?” He and his wife routinely go to their second residence for three or four days in what he calls “practice” for retirement. “I told her recently, ‘Let’s go for an entire week’. By the fifth day, I realized that five days was definitely my maximum and back to El Portal we came as fast as we could!”
For as many years as he has spent in the business, Ramirez relates that it’s still the highest praise to see familiar faces in the dining room. “It’s even higher praise when I hear them say, ‘Don’t even bring me the menu. Just bring me the special.’ They know that whatever my chef has prepared that day will be something they will enjoy…and that will keep bringing them back for more!”
To learn more – and to start salivating over the menu selections – visit www.elportalrestaurant.com.
Originally pubished in The Pasadena Outlook