After seven years dishing up Wu-Tang Flan throughout the Mission, Bernal, and Excelsior neighborhoods, Chicano Nuevo owner Abraham Nuñez secured a permanent location for his Ensenada-style Mexican restaurant. In March Nuñez signed a 20-year lease at 3355 Mission Street, at the base of Bernal Heights, and he couldn’t be more thrilled. The location formerly housed Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and a bar called El Amigo; Nuñez will join the two businesses, historically separated by a narrow hallway and small door, for Chicano Nuevo’s expanded, forever home. The coolest part of this story, Nuñez points out, is that he also used to bartend at the location in 2013, and in 2015, after Emmy’s left, it was the site of his first official Chicano Nuevo pop-up. “It’s been a long hustle,” Nuñez says. “It’s poetic. The first place I ever popped up was Chicano Nuevo, where I came up with the name and the logo, we’re in that same space.”
Fans don’t need to worry about the menu changing too much — it’s still “border town street food,” as Nuñez calls it. That fish-forward Baja cuisine is still the main focus, dishes like yellowfin, lobster, and fish tacos. But in the new space, Nuñez wants to push a finer plated experience, as well, something healthier and lighter, bringing in new plant-based items. He won’t alienate his Hood Burger and tamale negro fans, though, just add new items rather than cut existing ones.
The homecoming is still a ways off — he’s aiming to open in Spring 2023. His contract at Excelsior bar Broken Record ends in October (he calls his tenure there a “whole other chapbook”) and he plans on hosting pop-ups and events throughout the winter. While that wraps up, he and his girlfriend Courtney Fujita, who spent nine years in the cocktail game with Future Bars, which owns places including Bourbon and Branch and Zombie Village, will dedicate themselves full time to the buildout of the new restaurant and bar. The liquor license came as part of the lease, along with plenty of redesigning and necessary construction. Mostly, he’s excited about the team and artists involved with the new space.
Ester Hernandez, a legendary Mexican American graphic artist, will pitch in for design and art. She is considered by many to be one of the most impactful Chicana artists from the San Joaquin Valley who, Nuñez says, is as essential as Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. Her original Sun Maid Raisin print hangs in the Smithsonian. The intersection of Chicano and cholo culture, represented by Hernandez’s new Bernal Rock painting, is what Nuñez wants to capture in his restaurant — that’s why he’s dedicating the dining hall of the restaurant to that piece, which he recently bought from Hernandez. “It was more money than I’ve ever spent in my life on art,” Nuñez laughs. “Her prints go for three Gs. But I bought the painting for the community — that girl on the bike is the patron saint of the restaurant.” He’s no less excited about bringing in modern street art for the bar to balance the classic art in the dining room.
The return to the neighborhood wasn’t always so clear. The building owner sold it for cash to a foreign multinational in 2013 when “gentrification was roaring” as Nuñez puts it, and that company sat on the location for about six years. His agent let him know that after a brief bidding war, the new owners chose him due to his hometown cred and story. He feels his intimate knowledge of the building’s quirks from when he worked there added to his offer, too — he knew all the busted pipes, all the necessary repairs. Nuñez is no stranger to hard work, though; he says his father grew up in Tijuana and that his identity as a first-generation Mexican American informs his approach and menu, as it will in the expanded space. “I want to connect with that again,” Nuñez says.