Catching Up with Felicia Ruiz of Lola Tapas: Plant-Based Diets and Getting Back to Her Roots
Recently we've been talking about the local dining spots of former days and our trip down memory lane connected us with chef Felicia Ruiz, who many will know from Lola Tapas. Ruiz ran the well-loved restaurant until June 2010 and when it shuttered, many a Phoenician lost a favorite dining spot.
Fortunately, Ruiz isn't one to dwell on the negative side of life. And her fans will be happy to know she's still very much involved in the food community -- though in a different capacity.
"It allowed me to get back to my roots," Ruiz says of the restaurant's closing.
See also: 10 Metro Phoenix Restaurants We Miss
After a time during which Ruiz says she "disappeared," she returned to the kitchen with a new focus. For the last year or so, the chef tells us she's been focusing on learning about indigenous foods with the end goal of compiling a curriculum to teach people about healthy plant-based diets.
"I don't like to use the word 'vegan,'" she says. "I think it's gotten a negative connotation; 'Plant-based diet' lets people see everything they can eat."
Her education in the nutritional side of vegetable-focused eating has led her to an exploration of indigenous ingredients. As an Arizona native and 6th generation New Mexican, Ruiz says cooking with items like mesquite flour and cholla buds is a return to her family's traditional food ways.
Lauren Saria Ruiz sits on a chair she saved from Lola Tapas. "When the restaurant closed there were some things I just couldn't bear to get rid of," she says.
It's a tradition she never lost while operating her restaurant, but Ruiz says she's now able to focus on exploring these topics and bringing that knowledge to others. She's teaching cooking classes and workshops, including an upcoming series about food as medicine at mod.i.fy in Scottsdale.
But.... Will we ever get our tapas back?
"The million dollar question!" Ruiz says with a smile when we ask. "People always ask me that. But I don't see that in my future."
(Though she does add that she'd "never say never.")
The chef declined to discuss the iteration of Lola Coffee that opened earlier this year at Sam Fox's the Yard. The coffee shop and wine bar didn't use the name "Lola Tapas," but did offer a menu of Spanish style tapas. Ruiz wasn't involved with the project at all, but again, she's not the type to dwell.
"It is what it is," she says of the restaurant, which closed last weekend and will reopen later this fall as a new "concept" later this fall.
Of course, anyone who ate at Ruiz's restaurant or has met her will understand the impossibility to recapturing what was lost when it closed. Ruiz says, "the timing was just right," to open the restaurant. Plus, she truly loved the space.
"I really did feel like I would take a breath and the restaurant would exhale," Ruiz remembers. "It was an extension of me."