Erwin Ramos wouldn't be where he is today were it not for a fateful bus trip through Mexico at the age of 17.
The son of successful restaurateurs in the Philippines, Ramos said he was enchanted by the Mexican cooking he encountered along the route from Mexico City to the Yucatan Peninsula and Oaxaca. And though the cuisine he discovered had much in common with what he ate growing up thanks to the Spanish colonialists who once occupied both countries, he said there was something about how dishes were prepared in Mexico, the color and the flavors, the captured the young chef's imagination.
"The cuisine, the food itself. The red chilies – that you can mash it up with a little cream and it becomes orange," Ramos said. "I'm a very creative person, and that's how I see things."
Today, Ramos is married with two kids and four Mexican restaurants, including a burrito joint in Brookline called Olecito that opened earlier this summer. The Filipino immigrant been making Mexican food in the United States for more than two decades now, and is still bubbling with ideas for new culinary ventures.
But Ramos has been kept busy in the last year expanding his culinary empire out of Inman Square, where both his primary restaurant, Olé Mexican Grill, and its miniaturized version, Olecito, have operated for years. He opened a second Olecito in a Boston University dormitory on Commonwealth Avenue last August, followed by the much-delayed opening of his third location in Brookline Village earlier this summer.
Olecito offers take-out tacos, burritos, tortas (a Mexican sandwich) and quesadillas, but Ramos said the flavors and ingredients are really no different than the more complicated dishes served at his sit-down restaurant.
"I didn't really alter anything from Olé," he said. "We just put it all in a burrito."
Ramos came to the United States to go to culinary school in Rhode Island in the 1980s and decided to stay, despite the objections of his family at home in the Philippines. He opened his first Mexican restaurant with just five tables in Winter Hill in 1996, then moved to a slightly larger location in Arlington a few years later.
Then in 2000, Ramos took over a former comedy club on a side street in Inman Square and opened Olé. He got an apartment in the building across the street, and when a storefront became available next door a few years later, he rented that out as well and started Olecito. "I'll never get out this place," he said, laughing.
For a man who left one country to serve the cuisine of a second country to the people of a third, the expansion out of Inman Square and across the Charles River to Brookline was surprisingly difficult for Ramos. Instead of waking up mere feet from his two restaurants, office and main kitchen, he found himself having to rely on his staff to make sure that Olecito's burritos were being rolled just right – "It's an art form" – across the Charles in Brookline.
"It's scary because I can't touch it," he said. "I like to build things; I like to touch them."
Ramos said he still learning from the experience. Where as he's used to serving college students who typically carry cash in Inman Square, he found that he was attracting families who wanted to use credit in Brookline Village, so he had to get a credit card machine.
And he continues to tweak his menu. He's trying to find organic and local alternatives for more of his ingredients, and recently began serving frozen yogurt sweetened with guava nectar.
And though Ramos is brimming with new ideas, not all based on Mexican cuisine, he's content to slow down and settle into his growing culinary empire – at least for the next year. Besides, he said, there's still work to do.
"All I have to do is a lot of tweaking," he said. "I always tell my people, any good or bad comments, let me know."