Story by Gina Malone | Photos by Sarah Jones Decker
At Limones, chef and owner Hugo Ramirez likes to keep it simple and good—and that makes for food that is simply good.
“I’ve never done anything that is not ‘me,’” Ramirez says. He and his wife Amy moved to Asheville 14 years ago to open a restaurant, leaving behind the San Francisco Bay area where he had learned to prepare dishes that combined French Californian and his native Mexican cuisines. “It was an excellent move. We love it.”
Listening to Ramirez speak, it does not take long to realize that family is important to him— whether it is his parents who taught him about food or his own children, who are now old enough at 13 and 15 to help out at Limones, or the loyal employees who have been with him since he opened. “It’s a really good team effort from everyone who works here,” he says.
Despite years of learning the business of food from restaurateurs, it is to his mother and sister—“excellent cooks”—that he often turns with questions about Mexican cuisine. He travels to his native Mexico City once a year to see what is new there on the food scene and to find different things for his customers. He says that food in his homeland “has changed a lot.”
His mother is both critic and teacher. “She thinks some things I do with food are weird,” he says laughing, but “she approves,” as does his father who, Ramirez says, “likes it when I go home and cook for them.”
The recently renovated interior of Limones reflects an appreciation for his homeland. What began as a fresh coat of paint turned into a two-week project complete with a designer and contractor, he says with a laugh. Eye-catching comals, large metal pans similar to griddles and used to make tortillas, hang on the walls along with decorative masks and colorful paintings.
Creativity is important to Ramirez. Often, he says, he will go out and purchase ingredients, as many of them locally grown as he can, without a preconceived plan for what to do with them until he gets back into the kitchen. “I like the connection with people who grow and raise the stuff,” he says, “and with what local providers have to offer.”
Although his menu changes three or four times a month, “we always listen to people one hundred percent,” he says. “We’re pretty dedicated to our customers.” Lobster Nachos, ceviche, mussels and scallops are among his most popular dishes and ones that hold their places on the menu. In this electronic age, customers are not shy about letting him know via Facebook or email what dishes they want to see on the menu every time they visit.
Because Amy is vegetarian, he cooks a lot of vegetarian dishes at home, Ramirez says, and includes vegetarian options on the menu. His Three Cheese Chile Relleno with pico de gallo and black bean sauce is a favorite dish.
Ramirez learned by doing—working and apprenticing in restaurants, spending his free time at ports learning how to choose fish, asking questions. He had help from many people along the way, he says, who recognized his “passion for food.” Today he is still open to possibilities. “You never stop learning.”
His travels to restaurants elsewhere have given him a new appreciation for the city he loves to feed. “I always knew Asheville had pretty good restaurants,” he says. “I just didn’t know how good.”
Limones is located at 13 Eagle Street in downtown Asheville. Hours are daily, 5–10 P.M., with Sunday brunch served from 10:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. For more information, visit limonesrestaurant.com, call 828.252.2327 or find them on Facebook.