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Meet Chendo of Balam: Lynwood’s Experimental Taqueria That Doubles as a Designer T-Shirt Shop

During this difficult time for restaurants, DoorDash and L.A. TACO are teaming up to profile some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness. We want to be there for L.A. restaurants who are still #OpenForDelivery and hope you will join us in supporting one another in the weeks ahead. For now, enjoy this profile of the force behind Balam Mexican Kitchen.

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]alam Mexican Kitchen in Lynwood doesn’t fit easily into a box.

This could be due to its boundary-blurring tacos, like the one with a “tortilla” made of hibiscus-dyed pickled jicama, or the chicken tinga served with Indian masala sauce or beer-battered fish tacos that come with cranberries.

Or maybe it’s the restaurant’s devotion to strong visuals, found on t-shirts that work Balam’s jaguar motif into repurposed logos of legend, including those from bands like Black Flag and Joy Division.

What really sets the spot apart is the creative scope of its owner, Rosendo “Chendo” Jacquez, a 27-year entrepreneur whose ideas stretch vastly beyond running a typical taco spot.

“We want to be ahead of the whole crowd,” the Torrance-born, Cerritos-raised owner tells L.A. Taco. “We want to be in our own lane and our own world.”

Before entering the dining business, Jacquez worked in fashion, helping outfit personalities like The Game, Rita Ora, and Big Sean in vintage Vuitton and BAPE at his friend’s appointment-only clothing store.

In 2013, a concept began brewing in the back of his mind for a restaurant that would incorporate diverse styles of Mexican recipes.

Rather than shoot for the fashionable enclaves of Silver Lake, Venice or the Arts District, Chendo took a risk and made a point of keeping his creations firmly in the South L.A. area, to give his fellow offspring of immigrants a taste of something different without having to make the usual drive.

“I wanted people to enjoy great tacos and the great cuisine that Mexico has to offer,” he says. “Not just onions and cilantro on their tacos.”

Ideas came fast and feverishly. There was just one problem: he couldn’t cook, something the restaurateur openly embraces.

Two years later, his sister introduced him to a friend, chef Manuel “Kornie” Bañuelos, who had spent years running restaurants in Guadalajara.

“[Kornie] was like, ‘I’m down to go to L.A. and open a shop with him,’” Chendo recalls. “She told him my whole concept and they set everything up randomly.”

Three weeks after Bañuelos moved here, the duo opened the doors to their project, transforming Jacquez’s vision into reality in the Lynwood space that now serves as a base of operations for the restaurant and other creative endeavors. The young chef completed the picture with his fresh knowledge of Mexican food trends and deep roots in Mexico.

Chendo named the new restaurant Balam, a Mayan word for jaguar, which are held sacred since pre-Colombian times, frequently associated with deities, shamans, and Mayan rulers who could assume the animals’ forms.

“I didn’t want something with tacos in the name,” he says. “I wanted to do something from the roots.”

Balam debuted with a menu of ten tacos on housemade tortillas, all tapping Mexican ingredients and recipes while eschewing traditions. Instead, his inspiration came from L.A. as he knew it.

Which explains why there is masala sauce served on your chicken tinga taco. That comes from one of Chendo’s closest childhood friends, whose family owns Ashoka the Great Cuisine of India in Artesia.

“That’s like my second family there,” he says. “They make the masala for me, so we offer that on the taco instead of chipotle.”

This is also why the sensational mole almendrado (an almond-forward mole) taco has basmati rice. And why a Korean taco comes with chipotle sauce and coleslaw. And the reason black beans replace pinto in each instance, an ode to L.A.'s strong central American population.

In 2018, Balam took home the “Best of Show” award at L.A. Taco’s own Taco Madness for its Tropical T, a Yucatan-inspired taco of fried coconut shrimp, toasted pepitas and mango pico de gallo that comes on the aforementioned purple, pickled jicama tortillas.

There is nothing but stand-outs on Balam’s menu, it seems. And when its seasonal tortas ahogadas on Guadalajara-imported birotes salados (the regional sourdough renowned around Mexico) are available, fans know to snatch them up quickly before they’re all gone.

Lynwood, California - April 15: Rosendo “Chendo” Jacquez at Balam Mexican Kitchen in Lynwood on April 15, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)
Lynwood, California - April 15: Rosendo “Chendo” Jacquez at Balam Mexican Kitchen in Lynwood on April 15, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

Balam’s t-shirts seem to sell out just as quickly. After initially dismissing the idea of making store merchandise, his family encouraged him to unite his love of design and fashion to make some tees.

“Since middle school, I’ve always designed shirts,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be a graphic designer and have my own brand one day.”

First came a simple shirt featuring the restaurant’s name. But Chendo knew he had to get more creative. His first take on repurposing an iconic brand was a shirt bearing the Roma detergent logo, only with the laundry-scrubbing lady now busy making tortillas.

After that, the ideas surged. Favorite riffs include Dennis Rodman with a leopard-pelt hairdo in a “Balam” Bulls jersey, Felix the Cat juggling tacos, remixed Lotería cards, and a tribute to Full Metal Jacket where the grunt’s helmet reads “Born to Eat.”

The designs define Balam almost as much as the food, highlighting the owner’s creative vibes, associations, and ambitions outside of just providing attention-grabbing food.

“I feel like my designs show that we’re not just a taqueria,” Chendo, whose parents come from Tepatitlan, Jalisco, says. “I’m first-generation here. I know a lot of Mexico and the U.S. and a lot of other things, and I want to let my creativity show. This is my platform.”

In fact, Chendo has big plans beyond earning more accolades and praise from loyal diners. He’s hoping to launch an online store for Balam’s merchandise soon.

He also envisions diving more heavily into his creative side, with dreams of shooting a music video or small film in the future. 

He’s also working on starting his own clothing brand, designing leather goods and reconstructing 1950s-style jackets with a friend from Japan.

 “The only thing that’s stopping me now is a name,” he says, admitting that he almost decided to call the business “After-Hours” shortly before The Weeknd snatched it up for his latest album.

L.A. will be hearing more about Chendo and his endeavors for years to come. Until then, we have the tacos.

You can order Balam Mexican Kitchen right now using the official partner of Taco Madness, DoorDash. Currently, DoorDash and L.A. TACO are profiling some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness.

DoorDash is committed to doing everything it can to support its restaurant partners during this time. With their recently launched #OpenForDelivery campaign, they’re seeing chefs and eateries who normally compete begin to support each other. You can also support local restaurants like Balam Mexican Kitchen by ordering your meals from them online and spreading the word that many restaurants are still #OpenForDelivery.

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