Chef Rich Hinojosa

Chef Rich Hinojosa of CRUjiente Tacos.

3961 E. Camelback Road 

From raw oysters to a roasted duck on his eighth birthday, to being the owner and executive chef of one of the most well-known taco joints in the Valley, Chef Richard Hinojosa knows the value of a good dish. We went behind the scenes to learn more about how CRUjiente Tacos came to be. 

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in south Texas, born in San Antonio. My father was in the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), so we moved around a lot when I was growing up but mostly stayed in San Antonio. I’ve moved back three times. When you’re from Texas, you’re always a Texan, but I call Phoenix home. 

I moved here to attend culinary school. After graduation, my wife and I moved to southern California, then came back, then moved to Hawaii, Colorado and back again – this time, it stuck. We’re not leaving!

What was it like, working in Hawaii?

I lived on Maui – from my experience, it’s the best island. Years ago, when the economy was starting to go south, I started looking at options, and my last restaurant job – before catering – was at Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician [now known as J&G Steakhouse].

The director of human resources mentioned that their Starwood property in Maui needed a chef, so I looked at it – of course, online, it looks amazing – so I sent my resume and was interviewed multiple times. They flew me out for an interview. It was an amazing, truly life-changing experience.

The restaurant was right on the water, and I had an amazing team – some of whom I still talk to. The people in Hawaii are so welcoming. The produce, too, I had fun putting my spin on the products. We were there for four years – it was hard to leave, but I didn’t want my daughters to grow up not knowing their family members. And it was expensive [laughs]. 

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I was very excited about food from a young age. I enjoyed dining and trying new things. My first ‘exotic’ dish was raw oysters in Port Arthur when I was a kid. My mom freaked out because I was little; they didn’t know if I was allergic, you know? My dad was like, ‘ah, he likes it, let him eat it.’

I asked my mom if she would roast a whole duck for my eighth birthday. I had a friend who slept over and was like, ‘what are you doing?’ But my mom is a phenomenal cook, so she got scallops and seasonings, and I had a duck for my birthday. 

In high school, I took a girl out for a date to a nicer place, and she ordered chicken fingers. It was so off-putting because I always tried to order something different every time I went out to eat. After we were done, she asked what we were going to do and…I took her home [laughs]. 

I went on a cruise with my aunt when I was 19, and there was a chef demo; I stuck around at the end and asked him, ‘what do I do to become a chef?’ And he mentioned culinary school, so I looked them up, and the Culinary Institute of America was on a two-year waitlist – I’m super impatient, so I kept looking and found Scottsdale Culinary.

Did you start out working in restaurants?

Yes, but I was always front-of-house. And I loved every minute of it, so I’m in the right place. I remember watching the GM and the chef thinking, ‘I want to know what happens behind the scenes.’ I knew I needed good, professional kitchen knowledge. I did my externship in a kitchen and knew I would never return to the front-of-house. I worked in probably eleven restaurants before I started CRU.

Did you always know you’d be creating tacos?

Actually, no – when I started culinary school, southwest cooking was all the rage, and Arizona was the epicenter of that type of cooking. But when I went to California, the style of food was ingredient-driven, with French techniques; the first dinner I had at the restaurant I worked at completely changed my way of thinking – southwest was done. 

When I worked at Mary Elaine’s, there was a lot of modern French cooking. I was then hired as a private chef, and it was a good experience because I got to cook whatever I wanted, and I never wanted to cook the same dish twice. 

Eventually, I thought, ‘I can do this for a lot of people,’ so I started catering and was doing a lot of French and Italian cooking. In Hawaii, I was introduced to Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine. I started to enjoy hand-held foods, and I would make taco menus. A friend asked if I had ever thought about opening my own restaurant. So I wrote out a bunch of different taco ideas and thought, ‘okay, this sounds so fun.’ 

How many combinations of tacos have you created since opening?

Around 230 different tacos. A lot of the ideas I had in my notebook from the start came to fruition – a lot of them didn’t. My goal was to get through six months without repeating a recipe. We got through three years!

The crispy beef – the OG – is a popular one, but the Korean fried chicken is the most identifiable, most photographable, most ordered taco – it’s the signature one, for sure.

How did the restaurant materialize?

Once I had honed down the list and looked at conceptual ideas, I slowly made them make sense. I actually started looking at places in Denver. Jason [Morris, general manager and beverage coordinator at CRU] and his family came from Arizona to visit me in Colorado. I made crunchy tacos for our families and showed him my makeshift business plan. He read it and was like, ‘why didn’t you do this before?’ 

He told me that he’d go in with me if I moved the restaurant idea to Arizona. Six years later, here we are. I told him I wanted to put the restaurant at 40th and Camelback from the start. We actually parked our cars in front of where we are now – at the time, it was called The Grind – and went looking for a place. As soon as Grind went up for sale, we bought it. I wanted people to have a warm, comfortable, classic environment. I didn’t want to have the best tacos on Camelback or the best tacos in Arcadia – I just wanted to have the best tacos. 

Jason came up with the name. Crujiente in Spanish means crispy or crunchy. Also, since Jason and I are both sommeliers, we accentuated the “cru” part. In France, winemakers have designations – grand cru, etc. – depending on quality and class. No one would put that together with a taco restaurant, but Jason and I know! (and now, so do you, Arcadia!)

Let’s talk about drinks. How many kinds of tequila are available?

We have almost 300 different kinds of agave and Mezcal. It’s a remarkable list. We also have a really awesome whiskey program. 

We knew what we wanted when we opened – not because it’ll sell, but because it tastes better, you know? We had someone come out to help with our cocktail list, visit some different bars and talk with other mixologists to get inspiration. So now we have a cohesive list of cocktails. The Arcadia margarita is one of the more popular ones, though.

Who are some of your inspirations?

I have two chefs that I’ve followed over the years, and really appreciate what they’ve done. Thomas Keller opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you can do with however little. Joël Robuchon is another inspiration. I love their takes on food, restraint, and pursuit of perfection. A side of beans, a freshly-made chip… it’s soul-satisfying and so simple, but it means that much. That’s part of understanding restraint, which I’ve learned. 

How do you keep calm when things get crazy?

I whistle! I never thought anybody noticed, but everyone does. My father is so patient; my mother is not. I’m a lot of both. I’m not a screamer or a plate thrower – I can get really upset if our guest’s experience is compromised in any way, but it’ll never push me to where I lose my mind. Plus, it’s an open kitchen, so that would be bad.

Do you think your daughters will follow in your footsteps?

No, and I don’t want them to. I want them to find their own inspiration – they’re both very artistic. My oldest daughter is going to school next year for performing arts. My youngest loves to bake, but I think from seeing the amount of work I do…my wife and kids pay the price because I’m gone a lot. 

What’s next for Chef Hinojosa?

I have some ideas – we were close to following through but then, you know, Covid. There are other concepts and other stories I’d like to tell… you’ll just have to stay tuned!