Jim Urdiales grew up in his family's restaurant business, but he never planned to become a restaurateur.

But after two decades as owner and executive chef at Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Cuisine, 2323 S. Acadian Thruway, he's happy with his choice.

And he's very proud his Mexican restaurant offers more than the typical Tex-Mex fare.

The menu at Mestizo evolves depending on what Urdiales has learned about food on his travels throughout Mexico.

We visited with Urdiales and talked about his journey in the restaurant business.

Tell us about your background. 

I've been the owner of Mestizo restaurant for the past 22 years. I am a third-generation restaurateur. I grew up cooking in the kitchen at my parents' restaurant, Carlos Mexican Restaurant.

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What made you aspire to become a chef?

I am not a classically trained chef, but more self-taught. I give a lot of my creativity to my culinary trips throughout Mexico. I have pretty much traveled to every major city in Mexico. I did not think I would become a restaurateur until the calling came in my late 20s. It is a crazy lifestyle to lead because it is nonstop.

What dish are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fact that my Mestizo menu tells the full story of Mexican cuisine in the sense that true Mexican cuisine is more than Tex-Mex. It's also vegetarian, simple, complex, tacos, tapas, clean and elegant.

The cauliflower bowl is our most popular dish on the menu, but my most favorite dish is called camarones. It consists of stacked corn enchiladas with spinach and feta topped with a mole verde sauce with grilled shrimp and portabellas on top. I also serve it with fried potato spears. This dish has been on my menu for 18 years but has had five evolutions.

What is your morning routine before going to work?

I work out four days a week in the mornings. Then I usually go home and sit outside with my coffee and my furry friends and reset my head for the day. I also do a lot of gardening as my therapy.

Tell us about your prep routine in the kitchen.

The majority of my menu is made from scratch, so our prep list is extensive. I am fortunate to have a few long-term kitchen assistants that do that prep for me.

I am a regimented person in the sense that I eat at 10:45 a.m. for lunch and 4:30 p.m. for dinner. I do not like to eat late night after a shift. I also like to have all my work items in the same place every day. It's referred to as mise en place.

What's your most relied-upon kitchen tool?

I am most proud of the fact that I acquired my dad's stove before he closed his restaurant five years ago. It is a 1964 Vulcan stovetop, and it still works. It is one of my prized possessions since this is what I learned to cook on.

What do you splurge on?

I used to splurge on the latest kitchen items, but now I prefer simplicity. I consider my cuisine simple elegance.

Do you listen to music while in the kitchen? If so, what's your favorite kind of music?

I do listen to music on the line, and I prefer Soul/R&B music to chill as I cook. My favorite artists are Maxwell and Sade.

I also challenge myself to update the menu every January. It's not a total redo but a constant evolution of my interests. I am proud of the fact that 75% of my menu consists of dishes that do not exist at other Mexican restaurants.

Tell us about your biggest disaster in the kitchen.

Like any chef I have had my share of disaster dishes and experiences, but I use them as learning tools to become better.

My most important memory was over 10 years ago when a vegetarian blogger wrote a horrific review of my restaurant. She didn't like anything about my restaurant. My a-ha moment when was I realized I had three vegetarian items on the menu, but the server did not guide her in that direction, so I adapted the next menu with four vegetable-forward dishes and never realized it was the direction my menu would focus on.

And finally, we know that you love being a chef. But if you weren't a chef, what would your "dream job" be?

If I was not a restaurateur, I would have chosen to be a demographer. I love the breakdown of who we are and the changes that happen every 10 years from the census count. Or I would be a master gardener.


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com