I wrote this article to preview Raleigh’s second NoshUp at Jose and Sons. The events are presented by Ethnosh, a partnership between Face to Face Greensboro, Triad Local First, and Bluezoom Advertising that highlights immigrant-owned restaurants in the area through guides and events.
Jose and Sons
By Victoria Bouloubasis
Charlie Ibarra sits in his family’s newest restaurant, Jose and Sons, to tell the story of how he arrived at this very bar stool, turning his father’s dream into his own.
Jose Ibarra, Charlie’s father, is the inspiration behind the Ibarras’ newest venture. He is the one who, while on his vacation in Mexico, kept up with the Yelp reviews during the opening months, phoning his son to read the comments verbatim. Before Jose and Sons, there was Jibarra, an upscale Mexican eatery in that same spot. Before that, El Rodeo, a Triangle Tex-Mex staple started by Jose more than 20 years ago.
When Charlie was about 5 years old, he remembers squishing into the backseat of a car with his parents, siblings and uncle for a three-day adventure. With Jose at the wheel, the family fixated on the flat road away from La Mirada, California, Charlie’s birthplace, and toward a new life on the East Coast.
After two decades of laboring in a car parts factory, Jose gave up working for someone else for his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. He emptied his 401k and piled his family into the car, which eventually led to the first El Rodeo location on Hillsborough St. More than twenty years later, there’s a steady business with various El Rodeo locations, and gradual transitions to extended family (who transformed them into La Rancherita). You can find him still working at all of those restaurants.
Charlie never felt drawn to the Tex-Mex style of cooking that catered to American consumers with less adventurous palates 20 years ago. It wasn’t like his mother’s, Raquel Ibarra, like home. (Raquel still drops by the restaurant often with a packed, hot lunch for Charlie.)
Instead, Charlie envisioned an experience that coupled quality food with inventive care. And he wanted something that felt like home—to him. At Jose and Sons, authenticity cannot be defined or critiqued. The idea of it is as complex and subjective as any immigrant kid’s identity. And that’s what makes it truly genuine.
Where Charlie sits today at the bar, a well-curated DIY backdrop of his own design shows the duality of Jose and Sons. What looks like an actual steer’s skull taken straight from the desert is really a faux, hipster version made of intricate cardboard slabs spray-painted a peachy pink. It hangs on a wall hued a unique dark turquoise. It’s a color you’d probably get if you mixed the bright blue paint slathered on the outdoor walls at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul with the unmistakable, trademark teal of the Charlotte Hornets. A perpendicular wall is colored a rusty red reminiscent of both the North Carolina red clay soil and the smoky salsa roja pooled atop enchiladas.
This nuanced combination of Southern and Mexican translates to the menu, where Chef Oscar Diaz plays off of Charlie’s ideas to execute high-end technique packed with the flavors of home. Oscar, like Charlie, was born in the U.S. to parents from Jalisco, Mexico. Trained in the culinary French tradition and with a Michelin-starred Vegas gig already under his cook’s belt, Oscar walked into the door after answering a Craigslist ad.
“He came out of the blue,” Charlie says of Oscar. “You don’t find a lot of chefs with Mexican backgrounds beyond Tex-Mex. My brother Hector and I put him to the test right away.”
Charlie cites Korean-American chef Edward Lee (who tackles the idea of “fusion” food in the South with a raw, homespun flavor) and Charleston’s Sean Brock (crispy pig ears never looked so appetizing nestled in the lettuce wraps at his restaurant, Husk) as influences. Oscar pulls from the likes of Manhattan molecular gastronomy chef Wylie Dufresne, mimicking his popcorn grits to perfection. Oscar prepares each plate with a gusto influenced by local ingredients and modern twists to traditional cooking styles.
The melding of Oscar and Charlie’s ideas has created a rare menu, in which the two pull from their memories and find a playful palate to explore. Hefty chicken tamales are wrapped in steamed collard leaves. Crisp bacon is folded into homemade pimento cheese and dolloped atop a double-fried plantain, or tostón. Guacamole is enchanced with the tiny pungency of cotija cheese.
“I’ve seen people abuse food, put it on a plate and call it a solid restaurant experience,” says Charlie. “I don’t want to do that. And if I want to connect with people, I have to understand where they are sourcing their memories from.”
Charlie and Oscar’s experience as first-generation immigrants is not unique, but it’s one that is slowly being explored and celebrated in our higher-end culinary styles. At Jose and Sons, you’ll get both an authentic “y’all” and a “gracias” with your meal. There’s nothing fusion or inauthentic about it. It’s Jose, his sons and his chef bringing their Mexican, American, Southern home to you.