Five years after Julio Gutierrez closed Baja Fish Tacos in Belmont Shore, he was finally able to unveil his reimagined upscale Mexican restaurant in the same location.
Viaje—which roughly translates to “journey”—was conceptualized by Gutierrez in 2018, after he realized that the Second Street location of his franchise wasn’t taking off the way his other locations did in Orange County.
The neighborhood “needed something different,” Gutierrez told the Post on Thursday evening under amber lighting inside Viaje, which opened for its first day of service on Dec. 30.
Viaje is a dramatic departure from the Ensenada-style taco spot. A row of cash registers has been replaced with a craft cocktail bar, and casual cafeteria dining was scrapped for a Mexican metropolitan luxury dining atmosphere.
It’s “the dining experience you get when you go to a big city—Mexico City or Guadalajara,” said Sergio Alvarez, Viaje’s general manager.
The pandemic forced Alvarez and Gutierrez to put the new concept on hold, but ultimately it gave them years to gather all of the recipes that would define Viaje’s region-based menu. The pair, along with head chef Ricardo de la Vega, want their menu to take customers on a tour through Mexico, with authenticity as their main focus.
Alvarez said he tried a burrito for the first time when he moved to the U.S. from Mexico City.
“That’s not true Mexican cuisine,” Alvarez told the Post.
When Alvarez was a child, he remembers going on vacation with his family to Santa Barbara and Palm Springs. But no matter how far they drove across California, the restaurants that were supposed to represent his country all seemed to offer the same roster of items, he said.
“If you fly to Mexico, anywhere in Mexico, and you drive a couple hours in any given direction the food is going to change,” Alvarez said. “Here in the States it’s like 10 things that people think are Mexican cuisine. Chips and salsa? Fajitas? That’s Mexican food in the states.”
Alvarez has worked nearly every restaurant position imaginable since 1993 and decided to team up with Gutierrez after becoming enamored with the idea of dispelling misconceptions about Mexican food.
“That was my dream,” he said. “I don’t have the money to open my own restaurant but I can be part of it.”
Gutierrez, who opened his first Baja Fish Tacos location in 1996, said he’s venturing into unknown territory with Viaje. But he’s excited nonetheless to have brought something he believes is unlike any other restaurant in Long Beach.
Viaje’s menu offers from Jalisco to Oaxaca and beyond. Alvarez said the team tried more than 70 dishes, embarking on their own flavor crusade before narrowing it down to Viaje’s minimalistic menu.
Meanwhile, the bar offers a wide selection of Mexican spirits and lots of familiar cocktails with fresh ingredients and syrups made from scratch. Take for example, Viaje’s Paloma, which is made with clarified juices.
So far, Barbacoa de Cordero, a lamb shank dish that originated in Mexico City, is Viaje’s most popular dish. To Alvarez, it’s a beloved dish that he grew up with.
For Gutierrez, who hails from Jalisco, it’s Viaje’s Enchiladas de Mole that brings back memories.
“Growing up, mole was on the table,” he said.
Viaje is located at 5224 Second St. and is open from 5 to 10 p.m. every day except Monday.