Chef Chat: Felicia Ruiz, Lola Tapas

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Chef Felicia Ruiz is totally adorable. Okay, we don't mean to gush, but she's that special kind of person that makes you feel automatically welcome and at ease, especially in what she calls her second home, Lola Tapas.

We guess her relaxed attitude might stem from her culinary education. Ruiz never went to culinary school... big freakin' deal. Instead of spending time learning technique from decaying professional chefs, she taught herself through family experience and traveling.

When Ruiz was younger, her mother was hard at work taking night school classes, so Ruiz began cooking dinner for her three siblings. Her family could see her passion for cooking at an early age, and for her 16th birthday, Ruiz got cookbooks, measuring cups, and a wok.

The restaurant biz runs in Ruiz's family, along with a tradition of self-taught chefs. The popular off-Mill healthy eatery In Season Deli is owned by her 70-year-old aunt. Her cousin, who is also in the biz, helped Ruiz learn the ways of making horchata. Ruiz currently makes fresh almond horchata for Lola customers several times every week.

Though she is a proud 6th generation New Mexican, Ruiz says her inspiration for the Lola menu came while she was abroad. While traveling in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Central Mexico, Ruiz noticed something that set their cuisines apart.

Ruiz says Western European countries emphasize fresh, well-prepared veggies, making meat the "afterthought." This is probably why vegetarians adore the Lola menu. From the Barcelona eggplant stacks to the Champinones (mushrooms) con salsa verde to the ever-popular garbanzos con espinacas (spinach) a la Andaluza salad, over 50 percent of the regular menu is vegetarian-friendly.

Lola Tapas also offers a rotating specials menu. Recently, the special was pan-roasted brussels sprouts with manchego cheese and chorizo. It's a task to make brussels sprouts appealing, but Ruiz rises to the challenge.

However, Ruiz admits that because it's her first gig in the culinary business, it is a little intimidating when culinary school elites come in to try her food.

"I am confident in what I do, but I am humble because I'm not classically trained," she said. "Chefs that come in appreciate that."

Heck, we appreciate that too, and since Ruiz started offering her food for lunch (a first in the nearly four years it's been open) and opened up the outdoor patio seating, it seems there's more to love about Lola Tapas now than ever before.

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