Culturas Corner highlights individuals who make their community a better place through their work, business, volunteering, or activism. Today we have the owner of HomeState Tacos, Briana Valdez. HomeState is a Tex-Mex restaurant with a female-led company and a mission of introducing Angelenos to Tex-Mex food.
How did HomeState come to be?
I had been working in the hospitality business. I was a massage therapist, and I managed spas here in Southern California. Then, I was a client impact manager, so everything that impacted the guests was my domain, like the smell, the sound, the feeling of the towels. I loved that, but also kept missing this restaurant because I couldn’t find anything like what would later be called HomeState. One day, I found out that chef Thomas Keller was opening up his first L.A. location, and I had been lucky enough to go to a couple of his casual dining restaurants in Northern California and Las Vegas and I had really fallen in love with how he and his team had been able to create memorable experiences in such lighthearted settings and just so many details that were not sidestepped to create a moment. I felt that if I was going to make HomeState happen, I had to go work for him and with him, so I went to work as a host at the restaurant. I thought I would stay there six months, working on my business plan, but it ended up being four years. I’m so glad it didn’t take just six months because we learned so much in that time, from the experience of working in a restaurant to seeing how much went into creating a moment over a meal or the detail that went into prepping the food. When I wasn’t at work, I was just working on menu development, trying to figure out the perfect chili recipe or what the perfect tortilla was, and then, at the same time, I was trying to think of a way to raise money. It took a lot of focus and convincing others that they should care about bringing HomeState to life. I had a lot of faith that there were at least enough Texans or people who had been to Texas that would be open to trying something like HomeState, but it was still a huge leap of faith. I had never run a business before, and I’m really not a cook at all. However, for me, just having a deep commitment and passion for this idea to exist in a city that was my new home gave me enough energy and gas in my tank to keep going.
How would you describe the restaurant?
Primarily, HomeState is a restaurant, but I also like to think of it as a community center–a place that tells the story of growing up and living in Texas with food that is closest to my heart.
How was it growing up in Texas?
Well, it was all I knew. We moved around a lot as kids, so whenever anyone asks where I’m from, I always say “all over,” and then if they want to know more, I’ll tell them that my family lives in a small town outside of Houston called Freeport and that my triplets and I were born in Houston. A few months after we were born, our family moved to Victoria, and then in first grade, we moved to Arlington. A couple of years later, we moved to San Antonio and then back to Clute, and then, I went off to St. Edwards University in Austin. After graduating in 2000, I came out here to Los Angeles, and it was here that I realized that a lot of the food I had grown up eating in my mom and grandmother’s kitchen or in different restaurants around college wasn’t Mexican food–it was Texas food, and it didn’t exist out here. That was a huge moment of realization for me, and it made me homesick. I was always looking for that food, and I felt frustrated and more disconnected from home because it didn’t exist. I felt like Tex-Mex food was something that needed to be in L.A. not just for me, but for others and not just for Texans, but non-Texans who haven’t experienced that food and culture. The food I missed was a huge, untold story, and I wanted to tell it and do my best to embody what I love about Texas: the friendliness, warmth, congeniality, the ease and causal nature of things, the family vibe, the good music, the good food.
How do the kitchens you grew up eating at inform your food and cooking now?
They define everything about the restaurant. The foundation of HomeState is the flour tortilla, so when I set out to make this restaurant, I knew we needed to start with the foundation of the flour tortilla. It was the first solid food in my memory–my grandmother was always rolling tortillas in the kitchen, so I remember the sound of the voice and hitting the countertop, and I remember her making the dough with her hand, just rolling the balls, getting them flat and then cooking them. I remember the smell that it made and the stack of them on the table and then my family sitting around the table and eating them. We grew up pretty poor, so we never went out to eat, and I’m very grateful for that. We had every meal at the table together. And my mom had to feed a family of seven, and so she would migas at least once a week, which is simple food, but it’s soul food, really. You can feed a large family with few ingredients and not too much money and so migas is something that’s so personal to me and something we have at HomeState since it’s a food I wasn’t able to find elsewhere here. I’m really grateful to be able to share it with the L.A. community. And then the queso–queso isn’t something that my parents or grandparents made, but I had it a lot in college in Austin. It was something that we all gathered around, it was a very communal-based food that I could eat at a Super Bowl party or at a restaurant with a group of girlfriends. Queso was also something that was also just absent from the L.A. dining scene and another food I wanted to share with my new home.
How does your L.A. life intersect with home and Texas culture?
I think the intersection is one that existed and also one that’s been created. The one that existed was the really diverse landscape of the city, people have come from all over the world. So many Angelenos aren’t from here originally–they just all want to connect to something and don’t we all? Creating a place where people can come and feel at ease and welcome and have a breakfast taco or queso for the first time in L.A. felt right and that’s where the connection lies. I think the one thing that I missed was saying “hi” to strangers and having familiarity with strangers and openness to saying hello or waving to somebody passing by, so HomeState is meant to provide that. We don’t have to have a long history for me to say “hi,” we’re all neighbors, and we just want to create that feeling in the restaurant.
The food industry is obviously very male-dominated. However, your team is almost entirely female. How did that come to be and how does it affect your business?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I think, in the beginning, it was one of my really good girlfriends who helped me design the logo and my sister who helped me do the pop-ups and a lot of brainstorming. Then another really good friend of mine was our first manager when I found out I was having a baby, so it was just a lot of friends. It was a really communal effort, and so it was by nature. Our Director of Culinary, who I worked with under Chef Keller, is also female, and then another person in our leadership team is someone we know through friends. It’s never been a pre-qualifier, but it just happened through chance and friendships.
What’s next for HomeState?
We’re opening our very first HomeState to-go, which is just going to be a window, and that kind of happened organically as well. We’re really excited about that, I have such fond memories of walk-up windows in Texas, and I love the casual nature of that. Though, I think we’ll still do it in the HomeState way by creating a moment and experience and connections. Right now, we’re also really focused on the health of our teams and our guests, so we’re opening our patios and dining rooms, but looking at what we can do better than before. It’s really been a lot of development and understanding more about ourselves and how we can be better at what we do. I always say, I really want HomeState to be the best version of itself in every possible way. It’s being authentic, finding the best quality of ingredients that we can source, being the most hospitable that we can be, the most efficient we can be for our guests’ experiences, and just all the things.