Now, only a few months later, the future is considerably brighter. Thanks to the partnership of three long-time Ocean Beach residents, Hugo Carrillo, Patrick Clingaman, and Matt Cook, Ranchos has been reinvented in the form of a new establishment, Hugo’s Cocina. Appropriately named after Carrillo, a well-liked figure in local eateries, Hugo’s opened on Feb. 24 in the space formerly occupied by Ranchos.
Carrillo, who serves as Hugo’s general manager, joined the beach-area restaurant scene in 1991 when, as a young man, he began working at Maria Isabella’s, a small taco shop located on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. A few years (and several expansions) later, the shop morphed into Ranchos.
Among its claims to fame, Ranchos was reputedly the first Mexican restaurant in San Diego to offer an extensive selection of vegetarian dishes and other healthy alternatives, along with more traditional fare. Late last year, however, Ranchos was forced to close due to the illness of its owner, Marcos Mouet.
Clingaman, a well-known local businessman, is quick to point out that “Hugo’s is a new and different restaurant from Ranchos.” That being said, returning customers will likely experience a sense of familiarity once they cross the threshold of the new space.
For example, in addition to Carrillo, many of Ranchos former employees, including its long-time chef, Aurellio Dominguez, have returned. And a glance at the menu, which, for the time being, is shorter than the one offered by Ranchos, reveals that Hugo’s Cocina is being governed by a similar philosophy.
“Hugo’s will try to honor the influences that made Ranchos an institution,” says Clingaman. “We will continually be updating the menu while trying to keep it health-oriented and appealing to as many different diets as possible. The plan is to keep Hugo’s free-flowing and allowing it to evolve. We will be open to new ideas and keeping it fresh.”
Clingaman has extensive experience in the restaurant business, and, in addition to his involvement with Hugo’s, is co-owner of the Thai Time Bistro, a Thai restaurant and bar located at the opposite end of the same restaurant strip mall as Hugo’s. He is also the owner of Ozzie’s Import Auto Repair, a block away. Clingaman was responsible for the highly successful makeover of the Thai Time Bistro a couple of years ago.
Ironically, Clingaman was not looking for an investment opportunity when the Ranchos location became available. However, he couldn’t resist the challenge of opening another restaurant and the proximity of the storefront to his other businesses.
He also empathized with the plight of Ranchos’ former employees, many of whom had remained in contact with Carrillo after they lost their jobs. Through Carrillo, Clingaman learned that Ranchos ex-employees wanted to return to work in Ocean Beach, were working only part-time, or were not enjoying their employment elsewhere.
“I wanted to put people back to work,” Clingaman said. “From that point on, things kind of fell into place.” Clingaman is especially grateful to have Carrillo on board. “Most customers know Hugo,” Clingaman explained. “Everyone loves him. He’s a beacon of positivity. He remembers everyone’s name and what they ate.”
Like Clingaman, Cook brings a solid, 10-year resume in the restaurant business to his new venture. An affable 35-year-old given to easy laughter, Cook worked for Newport Pizza in Ocean Beach and Tiger Tiger, a popular restaurant and tavern in North Park. He is currently the general manager of the Belching Beaver Brewery on Newport Avenue and plans to continue working there for the foreseeable future.
An alcohol license for Hugo’s is pending, but as soon as it is granted, Cook envisions offering a selection of critically acclaimed Mexican craft beers. They will be served in an expanded bar area that has yet to be constructed.
For the past two months, all three partners, assisted by several former employees of Ranchos, worked feverishly to prepare for Hugo’s opening. Customers returning to the new restaurant will notice an aesthetically cleaner and brighter ambiance, including distinctive wood slat partitions designed and built by Cook.
In six months to a year, when the dust settles and the identity of the restaurant is more firmly established, a more extensive remodeling will take place, according to Clingaman and Cook. That will likely include an extensive overhaul of the outdoor dining patio and the restrooms.
“Things have been so frantic over the past few weeks, we haven’t even had time to plan for a grand opening,” Cook said as he juggled applying dark stain to wood tabletop while answering a barrage of phone calls and text messages.
Only days before Hugo’s opened, Ed Murphy and Mercedes Farrell, who had been regular customers at Ranchos since 1994, were among the continuous stream of passersby seen daily anxiously peering through the front windows of the closed restaurant. They were thrilled to learn that a new restaurant would be opening there soon and that its philosophy and staff would be similar to its predecessor.
“One of the worst weeks of my life was when Ranchos closed,” Murphy confessed. “The Cleveland Indians lost the World Series, Trump was elected president, and one of my favorite restaurants closed.”
“Ed ate at Ranchos 13 times in one week,” Farrell chimed in, adding, “You could bring vegetarians and non-vegetarians there. Our out-of-town visitors loved it and always wanted to come back! We’re really excited about Hugo’s!”
Similarly, a woman who wanted to be only identified as Victoria, confessed to being “Very, very, happy” to see a beehive of pre-opening activity in the space. Victoria said that she and her husband, Malcolm, had first moved to Sunset Cliffs in 1996 and had eaten at Ranchos every Saturday for 20 years. “My husband is a vegetarian, and I’m not, so it worked out perfectly! I loved everyone that worked there!”
As for the soft-spoken and unassuming Carrillo, when asked what it felt like to have a large restaurant named after himself, he appeared to be taking it all in stride. “I’m glad, of course, but we have so much work ahead of us!”
Where: 1830 Sunset Cliffs Blvd., Suite H., one block south of Newport Avenue.
Hours: The restaurant will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be served.
Info: Reservations and more information are available at 619-892-7882.