Aaron Pool of Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soups on the Perfect Enchiladas and Why Sporks Suck
When you hear the word "Gadzooks," you probably don't think of food. Toys, maybe. Or a children's clothing store. But a place for a good meal isn't likely to be the closest association.
"People assume it's going to be shitty," Aaron Pool says of the restaurant's name. "It's not like I planned it like that, but I like to under-promise and over-deliver."
If you've eaten at the quirkily named Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soup in Central Phoenix, you may have noticed a tall skinny guy with a messy mop of hair working the line. He blends in with the rest of the restaurant's staff, but to the surprise of many, he's no employee.
That fresh-faced guy in the gray Gadzooks shirt is Aaron Pool, the restaurant's owner and creator. And, yes, he's still a few years shy of 30.
He knows he's remarkably young to have opened his own restaurant, particularly when you consider that he had no prior experience in the industry. He's also quick to admit it wasn't easy.
The young entrepreneur grew up in the Valley on "Mexican food staples" from longstanding local spots including La Fonda, Carlos O'Brien's, and Macayo's. ("It was basically a lot of cheese," he jokes.) So when he got the idea to open his own fast-casual restaurant, he knew he wanted to something familiar. Everyone else was making tacos and burritos, so Pool came up with a concept for build-your-own enchiladas.
At the time he was just another ambitious business student at ASU's business school but unlike many others, Pool stuck to his plan. After graduating in 2009 he decided not to get his MBA and to take a chance on opening his own restaurant instead.
Fast-forward two years and Pool had made little headway. He says he was still living in Tempe and failing to find investors. The recent grad says he nearly gave up, but he had two fans that wouldn't let that happen: his parents.
"They were the only two supporters I had," Pool says. "They're the reason I kept going."
He moved back home and kept working, spending days a time cooking food from Ranch Market and trying to perfect the menu for his dream enchiladas joint. Though he'd written a business plan and a working menu, Pool says, he had no idea how to execute any of the dishes. He came up with all the recipes himself through trial and error in his parent's home kitchen.
Finally in April 2013 -- thanks to a local bank willing to take a chance on Pool's dream -- he opened Gadzooks in a building that used to house a dress store.
In the year since opening, the restaurant's been successful with the Central Phoenix neighborhood, thanks in large part to the restaurant's affordability and handcrafted food. Pool's come a long way from when he first tried to make a tortilla and somehow caused a doughy explosion. Gadzoook's menu features his own recipes for everything from Modelo-braised bison and salsa verde to green chile pork shoulder and vinaigrette slaw.
"This is Mexican food I'd put up against anyone in the Valley," he says.
An enchilada creation from Gadzooks.
Five words to describe Gadzooks: Surprisingly well executed customizable enchiladas.
One thing you want everyone to know about the restaurant: Festival tacos aren't on the menu. Order those. They will blow your mind.
What's your favorite item on the menu? Enchiladas. Start with our freshly pressed corn tortillas: one guajillo braised short rib beef, one tomatillo chicken. Christmas sauce: red and green. Both cheeses: Chihuahua and Asadero. Honey Vinaigrette Slaw on top, habanero lava, jalapeño ranch, and cotjia cheese. Over easy egg on top. It's a flavor and texture explosion in the mouth. It's like the first time, every time.
Describe the qualities of a perfect enchiladas: The layering of flavors and textures. Starts with a freshly made tortilla. Corn masa that is actually ground the same day, not from dry powder. Every ingredient needs to have it's own unique flavor profile. From the tanginess of the tomatillo chicken or richness of the Modelo-braised bison filling, to the smokiness and depth of the red sauce, the creaminess of the asadero cheese, sweetness and crunch of the honey vinagrette slaw, freshness of the jalapeño ranch, and saltiness of the cotija cheese. Layering contrasting flavors and textures yields great enchiladas.
Name your three favorite kinds of soup: Cream of broccoli, really good clam chowder, and I use a lot of milk in my oatmeal so I would call that a soup.
Enchiladas are to soup asumbrellas are to brooms. They both have sticks and that's about it. Enchiladas and soup are foods; that's where the similarities end.
Enchiladas are going to be the next frontier because there is a vast enchilada world yet to be discovered.
What's your best advice for someone who wants to open a restaurant: Persistence. Ninety-nine percent of people will tell you it's not a good idea or will give you their advice on whats wrong with your idea. Stay close to the person or people that believe in you. You will question yourself and wonder if you can really create the restaurant. You may even want to talk yourself out of it. Keep going. At times it will feel overwhelming, that feeling will end when you keep figuring things out. It will seem like a daunting challenge ahead of you and you won't know everything. Stay calm, you will get though it. This is essential. You will learn as you go. It is the right decision to take the risk and experience because no matter what the outcome, you will become a more intelligent, wise, and understanding person.
What was the hardest part of opening Gadzooks? Learning how to cook the food, the loan, equipment.
The food: When I decided I wanted to create an enchilada shop, I had no idea how to make shredded meat, tortillas, enchilada sauces, etc. I literally went to the Ranch Market and bought various cuts of meat. I would do a basic sauce and throw them in the oven. I didn't know what cut, temperature, liquid level, cooking utensils to use. When the pork shoulder that I cooked at 500 for 2 hours came out, I could go to a park and play some street ball with it because it had such a nice bounce to it.
The loan: Going around to major banks with no experience and a business plan based on a concept called "Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soup" yielded bad results. Luckily I found a local bank called Pinnacle Bank who believed in me and gave me my loan.
Equipment: Our first tortilla griddle was a pancake griddle. We could't cook tortillas for a week. Whoops.
Aaron Pool, owner of Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soup.
If you could do it all over again, what if anything, would you do differently? The kitchen is a really tight space, so the staff is right up against the heat of all the equipment. It turns into a Gadzooks steam room. I would try to move the kitchen apart, and invest in do-rags.
Name one local restaurant you love and why: Tuck Shop. I love being able to go there and feel so comfortable. The menu is truly unique, and very well executed.
Describe your most memorable meal to date: I was in Amsterdam in the summer of 2009 after I had just graduated from college. We were out on a pub crawl and found our way into a McDonald's. I had never had a Big Mac, so I ordered a Big Mac and chocolate shake. I ended up eating the Big Mac and slurping the chocolate shake down dancing at a bar to Guru Josh Project "Infinity". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9KnuJZkBjg
Your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It actually happened last week. We cook our pork and bison in the conventional oven below our stovetop burners. I turn the oven on at 5 when I arrive in the morning and put the meat in by 6 a.m. Well...I turned the knob to the temperature, but I guess the pilot light was out. I missed the part that the oven should be hot when I put the pots in the oven. When we came to pull out the meats at 10....the oven wasn't on. We didn't have pork or bison at lunch. Sorry if you happened to eat at Gadzooks on that day. My fault! Who does that?
Favorite thing to eat as a kid: Fun Dip. I enjoy, and enjoyed, the lick and the dip into the 3 pouch variety pack. The stick is the best part. The coolness that dextrose stick creates when you eat it is my favorite.
Favorite thing to eat now: Tamales bay oysters. Just north of San Francisco you can buy a sack of 50 or so oysters and shuck them right in the bay they are harvested in. You can eat them raw or bbq the oysters. The briny flavor is incredible in their raw form with a little Tapatio as well as bbq'ing them and putting a fresh mignonette sauce on the oysters.
One thing you always have in your fridge: Junior Mints . I have a mini fridge, so I don't have the space for the usual: spiral sliced ham, wheel of Roquefort, eight bottles of various pickled products, four varieties of milk, and several bottles of champagne.
One thing you'd never find in your kitchen: Sporks and mayonnaise. Sounds like a boy band. Sporks neither fork nor spoon well. Forget it if you want those morning Golden Grahams and you only have sporks, might as well use your hand. Try to spork Pad Thai.
Your drink of choice and where you like to get it: Strawberry daiquiri at a craps table somewhere in Las Vegas.
Your personal mantra: Take it one enchilada at a time.
If you hadn't opened a restaurant what would you be doing: I tell my friends that my dream job is Taco Bell. There is something peaceful about using caulking guns and a timed panini press to create a Crunchwrap.
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