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The Secret Sauce to Victor Escobedo's Success

Levi Sumagaysay | June 24, 2019 | Food & Drink

The pechuga al achiote with achiote-marinated chicken breast.

When 12-year-old Victor Escobedo immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his family in 1980, he vowed he would be an “ambassador of Mexico.” For a time, he thought it would be through his mastery of different languages and his work as a translator. Never did he imagine it would be through a burrito and a version of his Aunt Celia’s salsa, both of which became famous after his burrito beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s on an episode of Throwdown With Bobby Flay. “I have an opportunity to really represent my culture through food, through the salsa,” Escobedo says. “I found out, at the end of the day, that that was my purpose, so I feel so fulfilled.”

For a while, it looked like Escobedo’s long-term career would be focused on languages, having had stints teaching Spanish, English and Italian to French students in Europe; serving as a language teacher to middle schoolers in Marin; and as a Spanish interpreter for the 10 o’clock news for KTVU during the days of TV anchors Dennis Richmond and Leslie Griffith. But, in 1998, a friend found a perfect spot at 24th and Valencia streets. Escobedo’s late Aunt Celia, owner of Celia’s restaurants throughout the Bay Area, was a role model. And Jodi Hernandez, Escobedo’s wife, had the credit cards.

The veggie burrito

Escobedo enlisted his brother, Miguel, to be the main cook and help manage the kitchen, and Papalote was born. That was 20 years ago, reaching a major milestone for the authentic hot spot. Escobedo marked the anniversary by rolling out a food truck downtown in February, adding to San Francisco the locations of Papalote on Valencia (the original) and Fulton streets.

Today, kites (or papalotes in Spanish) hang from the ceiling. The frog and dragonfly kites aren’t Mexican; they were brought by a friend from Bali to decorate the restaurant. There would be no stereotypical sombrero-wearing donkey in his restaurant. “Mexican people can like what they want to like,” Escobedo says during an interview at his office in Fairfield. His pride in his culture would manifest itself through the food he would serve, from tacos (two for $9.25) to chilaquiles ($13.50). But the hands-down hot item on the menu is the Triple Threat Burrito ($33.33) that beat Bobby Flay in 2010, helped by a secret sauce that is Papalote salsa—roasted tomato deliciousness adapted from Aunt Celia’s salsa—which Escobedo bottled soon after his brush with the Iron Chef. The salsa, which uses garlic and onions from the Gilroy area and tomatoes from the California Valley, now sells at more than 600 stores in California, Safeway in Hawaii and, most recently, in Texas.

At the original restaurant in the Mission, Escobedo has witnessed a lot of change in the past two decades. When we visited the Valencia location during lunchtime recently, we overheard a discussion about globalism between some serious millennials chomping down on some serious burritos. “Why was it that people could do a sales pitch or look for funding at an Italian restaurant or over sushi? Why couldn’t they do that at a taqueria?” Escobedo asks.

Untitled.jpgOwner Victor Escobedo at the original location of Papalote on Valencia Street in 1999; Escobedo in front of two kites, a frog and a dragon. The decorative kites (papalotes in Spanish) inspired the restaurant’s name.

Despite some socio-economic shifts in clientele, the restaurant has stayed true to its core, its owner says. “We haven’t changed for anybody.” Not when he beat Bobby Flay, and not as the city has become gentrified. The food has always been cooked to order and made from scratch. “It’s clean; it’s healthy,” Escobedo says. “The neighborhood, right now, after the gentrification, is still worth feeding, and I’m still proud to be part of the neighborhood and to have witnessed the growth.”

To what can the restaurant’s longevity be attributed? Escobedo was not “a business person.” (He majored in Latino culture and social communication at Cal, where he met his future wife; he also has an associate degree in French.) Starting the salsa company became his business school, he says. Last year, his brother left Papalote, which means he and his wife, a Bay Area TV news reporter, are now the sole proprietors of the business.

“It’s from the heart, and my values and integrity are fully behind the product, and it represents me and my family and my culture—and that’s why I do it,” Escobedo says, wiping tears from his eyes.

Besides his businesses, which already require constant juggling, Escobedo has other creative endeavors. He does stand-up comedy, plays the drums and has two desks in the upstairs suite of his office—one for official business, the other for fun and creative projects, such as editing videos of his two sons hip-hop dancing. Or his latest project: a worldwide quest to find the best carnitas.

“I get the impression that he’s very in touch with how short life is,” says Michael Wray, who used to teach with Escobedo at Marin Primary & Middle School. “Why not do as much as you can?” Wray can’t say enough about the man he calls “one of my best friends in life, truly.”

Wray continues: “Victor started this tradition [in 2003] where we’d take middle school students that are musically talented and we’d put on a show with them. We’ve done it almost every year since then. He still comes back for that and plays every June.”

Fellow comedian Matt Gubser calls Escobedo, who’s usually clad in a T-shirt and jeans, a “kinda unassuming guy.” You wouldn’t know that he spent years in Europe and has lived such an interesting life, Gubser adds.

And it’s been filled with laughter.

“He’s hands-down, not up for debate, one of the funniest people I know... offstage,” comedian Myles Weber says. That’s not a knock, and Escobedo’s other friends agree. He makes them laugh whatever stage he’s on. Weber recalls a time when Escobedo rolled up to him in a parking lot, “mean-mugging like a gangsta, pretending his Toyota SUV was on hydraulics and blasting the Mickey Mouse theme song.”

That silliness—which Weber calls “just the right amount of healthy loopy”—comes with just the right amount of caring, whether it’s for friends, family or employees. When his brother left the business, Escobedo had to learn how to manage the restaurant—and its people. Of his staff of almost 50, he says, “I want them to feel safe; I want them to feel respected; I want them to feel appreciated.”

“Who knew that this would be my life?” Escobedo says. “Who would’ve thought that the restaurant would be more interesting and rewarding and fulfilling for me? I still can’t believe it. I never knew I wanted to do this.” 3409 24th St.; 1777 Fulton St.

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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Photography by: Photo by Craig Lee & Victor Escobedo 1999 photo by Jodi Hernandez