Building the Valley: SoCal Mexicali Grill takes time to get it right in New Kensington



Sean Watson and Jeff Cieslewicz didn’t want to serve a taco, burrito or quesadilla before time.

That’s why instead of opening SoCal Mexicali Grill in November as they had planned, it didn’t open until mid-February.

Watson blames himself because he wanted the design of the new restaurant in downtown New Kensington to be perfect.

“We had to create a space that we were comfortable bringing people in,” he said. “We didn’t have a designer. We did it and we figured it out as we went. The rush to open was not our goal.

Cieslewicz, the SoCal chief, doesn’t blame his partner for the delay.

“You literally did everything by hand,” he said. “Because of that, we have a very personal and intentional space.”

SoCal is located at 700 Fifth Ave. in downtown New Kensington, on the corner of Seventh Street where Tommy Chen’s China Bistro used to be.

Watson, a Lower Burrell businessman, bought the building in November 2018. Cieslewicz, of Latrobe, was previously head chef at the Knead Community Cafe in New Kensington.

SoCal is open for breakfast and lunch, 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Breakfast products are available until 11:00 a.m.

“We’ve been so busy,” Cieslewicz said. “We definitely exceeded our own expectations.”

Said Watson: “New Ken completely showed up. Much of our activity is repeated. The best compliment we can receive is someone coming back.

Besides getting the perfect physical space, they wanted the food to be the same. Over time, things have changed, such as where the food comes from to create their offerings.

“We kept going through the options we had until we had the best to bring to market,” Watson said.

Cieslewicz said the changes included moving away from more authentic Mexican to creating their own “vibe” and offering better food than anyone can make at home.

Tacos, for example, have gone from being rather simple to having more ingredients. The chicken asada taco features mesquite smoked chicken, shredded carrots, red onions, toasted almonds, dried cranberries, greens, and honey mustard aioli.

“We came up with a whole new taco menu that I think will surprise some people,” Cieslewicz said.

Some things have disappeared from the initial menu, such as ramen, at least for now.

“We realized that didn’t make us happy,” Cieslewicz said. “We want to be able to give you something from our heart.”

To prepare for the opening of SoCal, Cieslewicz, his wife and two friends traveled to Southern California last year to find inspiration. They studied everything.

“Curiously enough, food trucks were where the culinary scene was,” he said.

California burritos usually contain fries. But with no air fryer in the kitchen and wanting something that would stay crispy, Cieslewicz opted for baked tater tots in SoCal’s burritos, which bear the SoCal logo.

While avocado toast has been a trend, SoCal’s take is an avocado waffle, with a salty instead of sweet waffle.

But a variety of sweet offerings have found their way to SoCal, made by New Kensington’s Jana Latura. Latura had managed Kaufmann’s bakery in downtown Pittsburgh and volunteered at Knead when Cieslewicz was there.

The offerings include brownies, scones, cookies and muffins.

“I wanted Jana in the team. I knew what she was capable of,” Cieslewicz said. “It was not at all planned to have pastries. When you have someone of that caliber who is passionate about it, you have to let them use their gift.

Much of SoCal’s business is through online ordering and delivery. Instead of using an app, orders can be placed and paid through the SoCal website.

“We wanted it to be as simple as possible,” Watson said.

Orders can be placed at a walk-in window along Seventh Street. For those who want to dine in, the space has approximately 26 seats.

The dining room is full of upcycled and repurposed materials. The marble used for the tables was salvaged from a church altar and Watson cut them himself. An old church pew lines a wall.

“We try to keep things out of the landfill as much as possible,” Cieslewicz said. “There is a conscious decision to reuse and bring to life things that were once considered garbage.”

Cieslewicz said the driving force behind everything they do is a quote from HJ Heinz: “Do a common thing exceptionally well.”

“If it’s not a ‘hell yes’, it’s a no,” he said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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