By CJ Richter
My wife, Jackie, and I have been together since our first date 15 years ago, a night in which we were swept up into the romance of a perfect evening in Manhattan.
It was a night soundtracked by a live performance by Albert Hammond Jr., guitarist of The Strokes, the crack of billiard sets, emptied oyster half-shells dropped onto melting beds of ice and the pop and fizz of various cheap beers.
As we got to know each other that night, Jackie painted me a picture of her upbringing in Southern California by a Mexican grandmother who ruled with a wooden spoon. And while my future wife hinted she may have from time to time been on the receiving end of that fortified serving utensil, she was also grateful to have been gifted the knowledge and technique of Mexican family cooking.
I grew up in Bethel Park, where Chi-Chi’s was my favorite restaurant – early in my childhood I was put under a spell by the complimentary, and limitless chips and salsa – and Ortega Taco dinner nights. It was tradition in our family that your annual birthday wish included picking dinner for the special evening, and mine were inevitably either trips to the chain restaurant that would go on to serve a Hepatitis A outbreak that killed four diners and sickened 636 others, but not before I laid waste to multiple fried ice cream desserts; or inviting friends and family over for ground beef tacos and shredded cheese carefully piled into those stale yellow shells.
So, when Jackie, the beautiful corazón from East Los Angeles, offered to make me tacos on a future date, you can imagine how I responded. I told her that I loved her.
This is true, I did tell my wife that I loved her on our first date.
And so it began!
Jackie’s tacos are the best I have ever had, at that point, and to this day. She takes a soft corn tortilla and lightly pan fries it so that it is neither hard, nor soft; it is both crispy and supple. She doesn’t insult her tacos with aioli or try to pass them off as salads with watery diced tomato and iceberg lettuce. Typically freshly chopped onion and cilantro are all that are needed to rest on top of any desired protein – in those early days it was often perfectly seasoned ground turkey – now for me it is more likely something de la mer and then finished with a dash of salt. Sometimes she will make traditional birria style tacos, wrapping marinated hibiscus flower in cheese and dipping the tacos in the birria before sealing them on a flat top.
Yet, my heart was not captured by tacos alone.
Jackie can cook anything.
Chowders and Chili got us through the relentless winters we spent in Chicago for the last eight years. Vertically perfect tostadas that I am willing to bank my future on. Mashed potatoes and sauerkraut – the boring but satisfying staples of my German and Irish heritage.
As we began to grow as a family, having a son, and then quickly another, we kept track of our professional and personal lives with a wall-sized calendar propped up against a wall in the entry way of our Chicago apartment. I don’t remember who, but one of us wrote “poco a poco” in a blank space near the top.
Poco a Poco. It means, “little by little.”
Jackie and I are dreamers. We want big things, like most people, but we are grounded enough to realize that big things don’t happen overnight. We’ve sat in dimly lit bars plotting our future as oyster farmers, as a chef and restaurateur power couple, as the graying husband and wife team behind your neighborhood market. Poco a Poco. That’s us.
So with the “Great 2020 Pandemic Shutdown,” we found ourselves at home with little else to do but plot our future.
And so Poco a Poco became more than bar talk. First, an LLC and a bank account. Then, a menu and a logo. Then some pop-up dinners to test the water of these three rivers.
It is a cliche that running your own business is the hardest job in the world. It is, however, quite true.
Jackie and I are lucky to have the support of incredible family and great friends here in Pittsburgh.
We were quickly set up with Hitchhiker Brewing in Mt. Lebanon to sell Poco a Poco to diners on Saturdays. We bought grills and restaurant equipment, card readers so that we didn’t have to rely solely on cash, we rented time at a commercial kitchen, we looked for smart but easy-going people to help us on a part-time basis, which was no small ask in this economic climate.
It took a moment to get our legs, but each weekend was more profitable than the last.
And, wow, was it a lot of work. Jackie would regularly show up at Hitchhiker on two hours of sleep, wrap up tacos for the friendly neighbors for eight hours, before closing up shop and crashing into our couch, after kissing our two sleeping toddlers, tucked in by grandma and grandpa.
It was a lot of work
We struggled to break even, but agreed this was not about making money. Poco a Poco. People were incredibly positive, the tacos were met with rave reviews. That was what kept us going.
Something that they don’t tell you before you start a business is that everyone has all of the answers. Everyone knows everything about everything. Everyone knows what you should put on your menu. Everyone knows what kind of truck you need to buy to store your equipment. Everyone knows the best place to rent commercial space from, how much you should be spending at any given time, how much you should be making at any given time … Everyone knows everything about everything all of the time.
When I was approached to write this story, I was riding pretty high and having big dreams for Poco a Poco.
Those big overnight success dreams where I would picture myself toasting other great chefs and restaurateurs in this city alongside Jackie. A small publication had just written us up and another was reaching out to do a story. In my mind, I was building out our lunch counter, a small Mexican grocery with a flat top where you could get a taco, buy a six pack and browse through international ingredients to tie up a special evening at home. A place where you could go relax or attend an event dinner. Somewhere that locals would stop by every day, but people on the other side of the city would seek out on culinary field trips.
But we are taking a moment to regroup.
We weighed the growing pains of building a successful business against the reality that our babysitter had just taken another gig respectfully leaving us with two weeks to sort out a new arrangement, and Jackie’s prep help, while lovely, have busy schedules.
And so as we re-evaluate and approach Poco a Poco with a gained knowledge of what we actually need as opposed to what we think we need, we do so with the renewed confidence that people want what Jackie cooks. Everyday we get an email inquiring if Poco will come to their brewery, their apartment complex, or their festival … the answer is, yes.
Poco a Poco.
CJ Richter is a freelance journalist and commercial television producer who works on projects around the United States. A native of Bethel Park, Richter resides in Mt. Lebanon with his wife, Jackie, and sons Remy and June. The Richters own and operate Poco a Poco. For more information, visit www.pocoplease.com.