Laying Claim to Budget-Conscious Appetites

MJM Construction Group partners Mark Flotho, Jorge Avila and Mark Walpin are remodeling a spot in the food court at Broadway near Coast Highway for the Mexican restaurant Carmelita’s, part of a new wave of casual dining spots opening soon. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Three restaurants scheduled to open in Laguna Beach this spring should elevate the casual dining options in town. Newcomers BurgerFi, Umami Burger and Carmelita’s, respectively touting healthy and sustainable burgers and franks, burgers with extra flavor, and fine Mexican food, all expect to woo hungry budget-conscious patrons. Each of the owners say Laguna’s unique sense of community lured them to prospect for properties here.

The latest wave of informal eateries follows an earlier cascade of high-end restaurant concepts opening locally in the last year, including Starfish, Broadway, Three Seventy Common, Katsuya and Maro Wood Grill.

Young entrepreneur David Christopher Mainiero expects to open his healthy burger joint, BurgerFi, no later than June, replacing the defunct Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise on Coast Highway.

Mainiero originally conceived his “farm to tray” restaurant, using certified humane raised beef and local produce, under the name Urbun. Yet, his father and his partners had already launched Florida-based BurgerFi, now a 100-restaurant franchise with a similar concept, in 2011. He switched names once BurgerFi executives granted him latitude for modifications unique to Laguna, even allowing the operation to serve as a pilot to regionalize the brand.

Mainiero has obtained approval for a conditional use permit, which will allow him to serve the California-made wines and brews he plans to showcase. Burgers will share the menu with grass-fed beef hot dogs from San Francisco’s Let’s Be Frank, and a quinoa burger.

While sharing the slow-food concept of reliance on local sources with white-tablecloth establishments, Mainiero’s “isn’t a high falutin’ place,” with a basic burger tab at $5.97. Providing natural, quality products need not “put such a dent in your wallet,” he said. BurgerFi will seat about 60 patrons, with 10 to 15 seats located on the outdoor patio.

Umami Burger will take over 610 N. Coast Highway in Boat Canyon, formerly occupied by Picaya restaurant. The seven-location chain founded by Adam Fleischman in 2009 makes no claims of sustainability. Instead, the company prides itself on its “gourmet” burgers with their special seasoning mix that evokes “umami,” based on the Japanese word for a “fifth taste.”

The Laguna spot is slated to open by spring, said Brian Rosman, a spokesman for the company.

Umami Burger in Laguna will sport a nautical theme and will serve spirits, wine and beer to complement their signature core menu. “We customize the space and the menu for each community,” Rosman said.

In Hermosa Beach, for example, patrons can order a Baja Burger, their version of a fish taco. The special menu item for Laguna has yet to be finalized, Rosman said.

On a hard-luck corner near Main Beach occupied by a succession of fast-food restaurants, Clemente Heredia, Jr. will try his hand with a new outpost of his family restaurant, Carmelita’s, at 215-217 Broadway St., set to open by April.

Heredia is betting the corner can thrive with his more upscale, sit-down place, boasting a menu that blends Guadalajara and Puebla styles of Mexican cooking. The restaurant is particularly lauded for margaritas made with fresh-squeezed lime juice and 100 percent agave tequila, made specially for the restaurant by a Mexican producer.

Heredia’s grandparents opened the first Carmelita’s in Fair Oaks near Sacramento in 1962. His father, Clemente Heredia, Sr. and his wife Rasalba eventually took over the business and added a second restaurant in Roseville, Calif. Heredia, who partnered with his father to open the first Carmelita’s in southern California in Rancho Santa Margarita in 2009, now holds the reins. He began looking for a new  Orange County location as soon as the Rancho Santa Margarita eatery was “dialed in,” as he put it.

Having vacationed in Laguna, Heredia said he appreciated its sense of community and “foodie” inclinations. When the spot coveted by the Chipotle chain and previously occupied by Crab Zone and a Chinese takeout place opened up, Heredia felt it would be a perfect fit for Carmelita’s.

The less than stellar performance of past businesses there made it even more desirable to Heredia. He prefers locations where other restaurants have failed to shine, as was the case in Rancho Santa Margarita. “It allows me to really surprise people,” he said.

Jorge A. Avila, the Laguna contractor charged with remodeling the space, also sees its potential. “It’s going to be a very nice-looking place with a full bar,” he said, adding that he believes Carmelita’s will “bring that little area up in stature.”

Avila said that he and his partners ate brunch at the Carmelita’s in Rancho Santa Margarita to sample the menu, which will be largely the same in Laguna. Asked his opinion, he said, “It wasn’t good, it was excellent.”


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