Forget about chips and salsa. At the Irvine-based 3 Roots Mexican Cocina, a complimentary basket of Chicharrones de harina – crunchy, deep-fried wheat chips, splashed with lime and spices – is where it all begins.

“Our restaurant is focused on the original, traditional Mexican food. We don’t serve chips and salsa, not because we don’t want it – it’s because we really want to give a real Mexican experience to the Irvine community,” Jorge Hernandez, co-owner of 3 Roots Mexican Cocina said during an interview with Irvine Weekly. “We serve the original salsas. You know Cholula, Tabasco, Tapatio, right? Those salsa were made for the United States, for California. The salsa that we use is something that could be considered the “Mom and Dad” of Cholula and Tapatio – we use Valentina which is an original Mexican brand.”

Photo by Evan J. Lancaster

3 Roots Mexican Cocina opened its doors in February, hoping to impress patrons with never-before-seen concepts that push the boundaries of traditional Mexican cuisine. It was established by a group of three friends who were all displaced from their restaurant industry jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In terms of the namesake, Hernandez said the team came up with the name 3 Roots in the midst of the pandemic, as a way to represent the individual heritages of the three owners. It was through these discussions that the trio would ultimately decide on the blueprint for the 3 Roots menu.

“We are three roots, coming from three different places in Mexico,” he said.

Photo by Evan J. Lancaster

With non-traditional dishes like Surf and Turf Enchiladas, and the multi-layered Seared Ahi Tostada, along with monthly chef specials, like Lobster Enchiladas with Habanero Cream sauce, 3 Roots has a deep menu with plenty of variety.

In addition to seafood and the carnitas, Chori-queso, a popular melted cheese dish made with a blend of Oaxacan cheese, jack cheese, chorizo and vegetables, should not be left unattended.

Being from Michoacán, a place credited for being the birthplace of carnitas, it is easy to see why carnitas has a special place in the heart of 3 Root’s Head Chef Juan Lopez. At 3 Roots, Lopez marinates the carnitas and Al Pastor for eight hours.

“Chef [Juan] has a unique recipe of marinating, seasoning and cooking the carnitas – he takes about eight hours to make the carnitas,” Hernandez explained. “The same with the pastor. It is so competitive – not with restaurants in California – with restaurants in Mexico.”

Hernandez explained that the 3 Roots menu is designed around the regional flavors found in Mexico, specifically, Michoacán, which is home to 3 Roots chef, Mexico City, where Hernandez’s family is from, and Veracruz, which is where 3 Roots Co-Founder Enrique Zamora’s family is from.

The chef is from Michoacán – people from Michoacán normally have more experience and more knowledge of how to make carnitas, so we’re very confident with the carnitas from our restaurant — and he’s been working in the Mexican restaurant industry for 16 years,” Hernandez added. “Enrique is from Veracruz, so he can tell all the plates from Veracruz – and he can describe it, so chef knows how to plate it or play around with the Veracruz-style recipes. Same with me and Mexico City – we just do the tacos – we are experts on tacos from Mexico City.”

Yet, while the COVID-19 pandemic created hardships for many people in the restaurant industry, Hernandez explained that 3 Roots found a way to treat the pandemic as a window of opportunity.

“We ended up in Irvine, just because of the pandemic. We used to work at a Mexican restaurant in Irvine, and during the pandemic [they] decided to close the restaurant,” Hernandez explained. “It’s a bad time for everybody, but at the same time, it is a good time for us, because everybody will just be waiting for work. The Health Department will not be having many cases to do – so that’s why it was easy for us to open.”

In fact, Hernandez added if the pandemic did not happen, 3 Roots would not exist in Irvine, if at all. However, now Hernandez says he feels a strong sense of responsibility to continue manifesting the identity for the 3 Roots concept.

“I’ve been a manager for a couple of years, and I have seen from time to time — not mistakes — but personal ways to do things. Sometimes, the owner is set in the ways of their grandfather, and they don’t want to change recipes, and they are very old recipes, just with a California-style twist,” he explained. “We are not married to any family recipe. We’re just trying to do the concept – from Puebla [Mexico], the Mole, the Enchilada suizas from Mexico City, the al pastor taco, and carnitas from Michoacán.”

3 Roots Mexican Cocina is located at 15361 Culver Dr., Irvine, and is open seven days a week.