The owners of the acclaimed modern Spanish restaurant Ataula opened not one but two restaurants in 2016. Eater caught up with chef Jose Chesa and his partner in business and love, Cristina Baez, who say each restaurant has grown into its own identity, with “Chesa as the grandfather, Ataula the father, and 180 the son.”
180 was the first to introduce Spanish-style churros, or xurros, to Portland, and its first year was unexpectedly feisty, with the restaurant receiving “hate mail 5 to 7 times a week” requesting specific hours, says Cristina. Some customers wanted it to open earlier, while others wanted it to open later.
“The deciding email was two pages,” Cristina says. It told the tale of someone who’d tried to leave work early specifically to eat xurros, only to get caught in traffic and arrive after the shop had closed. So starting March 1, 180 will be open daily beginning at 8 a.m. for a “coffeeshop experience,” and it will also stay open later, till 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
With Chesa, Jose and Cristina say its identity really took shape from the start. The restaurant takes its name from Jose’s father, who’d flown from Spain for the opening but wasn’t aware the restaurant was christened in his honor.
“He saw his name on the door, after working hard his whole life,” says Jose, “and his eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘That’s what I envisioned my restaurant being 20 years ago.’” Jose says he learned to prioritize “hospitality and consistency” from the way his father ran his restaurant in Spain. “He always opened at 5:59 a.m., not 6.”
No two dishes are the same between Ataula and Chesa, and whereas Ataula is a “more playful, modern” Spanish restaurant, Chesa “refines tradition.” Both restaurants maintain Jose’s commitment to serving fine-dining flavors “if you close your eyes,” in a more community-oriented setting.
“To do a fine traditional dish, there have to be modern techniques,” says Jose. For instance, for each seafood paella at Chesa, Jose makes a lobster fume by boiling crab shells, lobster heads, rockfish bones, and more. His dad always says to add more water, but Jose wants that concentrated flavor—a modern approach.
Running three restaurants is a lot of work, and Jose and Cristina say they couldn’t do it without such a supportive team, which now totals close to 50 employees. Jose is always going back and forth between restaurants, and Cristina is often behind the counter at 180. “We are like an orchestra, and everyone counts, from the dishwasher up,” says Jose. “It’s about devotion. We see our lives in chapters. What will happen tomorrow? We don’t know. We have to live today and show our customers who we are.”