By Frank Sabatini Jr.
By the time Lino Rodarte was in his early teens, he knew how to make cheese with milk he extracted from cows. Under the guidance of an aunt, he also learned how to produce scratch-made tortillas and cook steak rancheros to serve with them.
Growing up in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, he was fortunate to earn a little money from his culinary inklings by cooking for a wealthy rancher in his hometown. Yet with a taste for new adventures, he came to San Diego in 1977 and soon landed a dishwasher job at Casa de Pico in Old Town San Diego’s Bazaar del Mundo.
The restaurant was only six years old at the time. It presented Rodarte with a challenging fast-paced environment, which by most odds, wouldn’t afford a young immigrant who spoke limited English the opportunity to oversee more than 130 employees as well as food costs and quality control of the kitchen.
But it did.
Rodarte became general manager of Casa de Pico in 2005, shortly after restaurateur Diane Powers lost her lease in the Bazaar del Mundo and moved the popular Mexican restaurant to 5500 Grossmont Center Drive in La Mesa. That same year, she moved her other Old Town restaurant, Casa di Bandini, to Carlsbad while keeping in place nearby Casa Guadalajara. And just six years ago, she opened Casa Sol y Mar in Carmel Valley.
In various capacities, Rodarte had a hand in them all.
His ascent within the company kicked into motion when he began sticking around after washing the dishes to learn from the chef various knife skills and how to manage food supplies.
“I was going on 18 years old and I was excited to learn new things,” he recalls. “I would watch the cooks, and the chef taught me kitchen procedures and to always treat workers with respect.”
After three months, Rodarte was promoted to line cook at Casa de Pico. A few years later, he was transferred to Casa di Bandini to train new line cooks. That opportunity led him into becoming head chef and kitchen manager of the restaurant for the next 20 years.
Powers recalls back then a fresh-faced Rodarte eager to learn new skills while showing great dependability.
“He caught on fast and we saw he had a good aptitude for flavors and food presentation,” she said.
Rodarte excelled in the kitchen. He made the leap from cooking basic meals in Mexico as a teenager to working with everything from sauces and seafood to grilled meats and seasonal specials as a young adult.
During this period, in 1994, he introduced fajitas to the menu. He saw the Southwest-style stir-fry on numerous menus while driving through Texas on his return from Memphis, where he had helped a friend open a couple of restaurants. With the support of Powers, the dish was introduced to all four Casa restaurants. And customers quickly embraced it.
Tequila-lime shrimp served over Mexican rice is yet another of Rodarte’s enduring contributions, along with the “macho grande” plate featuring a hearty lineup of carne asada, a chicken tamale, chicken taco, crispy beef taco, chile relleno, rice, beans and guacamole.
“It’s for big eaters,” Rodarte quipped, while modestly adding that Casa di Bandini received eight gold medal awards by the California Restaurant Association while he ran the kitchen.
Shortly before Powers moved Casa di Bandini and Casa de Pico out of Bazaar de Mundo, she offered Rodarte the general manager position at Casa de Pico.
In the transition, Rodarte helped her reopen the restaurants at their new locations while training new chefs and cooks at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town.
“Diane took note of my experience over the years, and I’m very grateful. I’ve raised my kids and bought my house working for her,” he said.
Rodarte is a familiar face at Casa de Pico. As general manager, he meets and greets scores of customers as they fill the indoor-outdoor restaurant, which seats 500 people. He also manages 136 employees, keeps careful checks on food costs and exerts a sharp eye on food quality.
For the latter effort, he takes part in weekly taste testings of existing and seasonal dishes to ensure quality and consistency.
“Lino and I do tastings every week,” said Powers. “We can taste test 50 new recipes before we settle on 12,” adding that the popular flame-grilled carne asada tampiqueno is among the many classic dishes she and Rodarte once put through the rigors. “It’s been on the menu for about 25 years.”
In his precious free time, Rodarte enjoys mountain hiking and picnicking around Julian and Cuyamaca.
“I just turned 59. So when I retire from this job and have more time, I want to travel to the Rocky Mountains and the mountains of Peru.”
For more information about Casa de Pico and the other restaurants in the group, call 619-463-3267, or visit casadepico.com.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.