All 30 seats at Jr.’s Gourmet Burgers are full when three more guests arrive for dinner to find a handwritten sign on the door.
“If you experience delay, blame Rachael Ray. #SoBeWFF,” it reads.
Behind the counter, a man in a silky, red boxing robe, with gray-scale tattoos on his hands and up his neck, directs hamburgers to their tables, eyeing each plate as it comes out of the kitchen window.
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Jesus de la Torre Jr., 39, swaggers table to table between orders, his boxing robe flowing behind him, checking in with his guests: “How’s everything, my man?”
It’s been like this, nonstop, since the burger he created for the Feb. 24 South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s Burger Bash, hosted by television chef Rachael Ray, won the coveted People’s Choice award. It beat out entries from dozens of nationally recognized chefs, such as Iron Chef Morimoto, Marc Forgione and Michael Mina. The next morning, he was back at this 1,400-square-foot galley of a restaurant when a friend brought him the boxing robe, a nod to the new heavyweight champ. De la Torre hasn’t stopped wearing it.
“I wore it to the grocery store,” he said. And there’s a picture on his youngest daughter’s Instagram page with the Burger Bash trophy buckled into the backseat of his car when he took her to school on Monday.
“Getting a lot of strangers here,” Paul Zilio, a regular here with his mother, Viola, tells de la Torre’s oldest daughter, Tathiana, 18. She waits tables here after school at Miami Springs Senior High.
The world outside Miami Springs, a bedroom city wedged between a canal and the airport, is finally starting to notice the man everyone calls Junior (for whom the restaurant is named) for more than his arm-sleeve tattoos.
His catalog of gourmet third-pound burgers has quietly been building a fan base since he opened in 2010, with toppings like shiitake, porcini and oyster mushrooms to his Cuban B burger with sweet ham, mustard and pickles. De la Torre’s flavors won the annual competition by local burger blogger Sef Gonzalez (Burger Beast) two years in a row, earning him a spot into this year’s South Beach food festival.
But it wasn’t always that way. For years, as de la Torre tried to advance in Miami restaurants, others had a hard time looking past a man with a shaved head, gruff beard, and tattoos he calls “job stoppers,” such as the baby Jesus cherub whispering into his left ear, a devil cajoling into his right. Skulls and Goth themes crawl up his right arm; crosses and heavenly beings climb the left.
He had to prove he was more than a first impression.
“I’m not just a tattooed chico from Hialeah,” he said.
De la Torre had been working in kitchens since he was a teenager in East Los Angeles, the son of Mexican-American parents. He admits he had been known to the police for just as long, as young as 13.
“I’ve spent some time doing community service,” he said.
He got his first tattoo at 17 when a friend used a homemade tattoo gun hooked up to the car battery of his tricked out Impala to ink comedy and tragedy masks behind his left shoulder. Beneath it, he inked, “Laugh now, cry later.”
When he was 18, he moved with his mother and stepfather aross the country to Miami Springs, where he still had trouble staying out of trouble. But there he met the young woman who would become his wife. Two years later, they had the first of their three daughters, Tathiana — and everything changed. Becoming a father refocused his life.
“She’s the reason,” he said, sitting down during a moment’s downtime at the restaurant, grabbing his daughter’s hand. “She deserved a lot more.”
He had tried to get a job in fine-dining restaurants. A fellow chef put in a good word for him at Michelle Bernstein’s Azul in the Mandarin Oriental, but there he was told that his visible tattoos were a problem. He decided he needed something to get others to look past his love of ink.
He enrolled at Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program in North Miami. Just having that on his résumé helped him land a job at South Beach’s Tantra and later at Norman Van Aken’s spot in Coral Gables shortly after Norman’s was nominated among the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurants in the country (and after Van Aken was named Best Chef in 1997).
The morning his youngest daughter, Jessica, was born, de la Torre welcomed her into the world with a kiss, and went off to take his baking and pastry final exam before later going to work. He graduated the next month, in 2004. “With honors,” he says today.
Still, life was a struggle and gamble for de la Torre and his wife, Saily, who worked as a process server, delivering subpoenas, all while the couple raised three children. He tried his hand at being a general manager for Church’s Chicken and Captain D’s Seafood franchises in North Carolina for a short time, but he missed creating.
The family moved back to Miami Springs, the only place where de la Torre said his family had truly felt at home. He joined a friend who was trying to keep the now-defunct Rocky’s Steaks & Shakes afloat. He asked the owner to let him try making his hamburgers to drum up business — “It’s an American staple. A hamburger will never go out of style” — and people started to notice.
The city’s foodie mayor, Zavier Garcia, stopped in one day when the restaurant was empty and asked what was good. Tathiana, 11 at the time and helping at the restaurant, recommended a burger, a Teriyaki burger to be exact: a third-pound of beef slathered in teriyaki glaze with bacon and a grilled pineapple ring.
When it arrived at the table, he asked her for ketchup. (“I put ketchup on my cereal,” Garcia joked.) The youngster hesitated, grimaced and looked back toward the kitchen. Let me ask, she told him.
De la Torre came out of the kitchen, a little heavier set than he is now, his visible gray-scale tattoos up his arms and neck. The mayor sat up a little straighter.
“Listen here, my man. That burger doesn’t take any ketchup. But I’ll make you a deal,” he told the mayor, putting the ketchup bottle on the edge of the table. “If after you take two or three bites, you still want ketchup on it, the burger’s on me.”
Without another word, he turned around and went back into the kitchen.
“I took two bites and called her over to take the ketchup away. I’ve never used it since,” he said.
By the time he opened Jr.’s Gourmet Burgers in October of 2010 with $5,000 (“I borrowed money from everybody,” de la Torre said), he had built a steady and loyal following. Friends told friends, who drove from as far as Kendall and Weston to try de la Torre’s gourmet burgers. De la Torre became a face around town people looked forward to seeing.
“Miami Springs made me who I am,” he said. “It’s the people of Miami Springs who came together to support the restaurant. ... The people kept coming back for the food.”
He cooks at charity events throughout the year, from an annual autism swimming fundraiser at the city’s aquatic center to the Relay For Life, to which he also donates his profits at the restaurant for the day. When a Miami Springs 2-year-old was diagnosed with cancer, the community got together to build the family a backyard playground (with the help of Ahmed Hassan from television’s “Yard Crashers”). De la Torre brought a grill and cooked for everyone.
“He always says how proud he is to be from Miami Springs, but actually having him here is an honor for us,” said Garcia, the city’s mayor for the past 12 years.
Tathiana concedes that “We still get looks,” when they go out as a family with her dad in a white tank top and shorts that show off the tattoos on his arms and legs. Even she has gotten her first tattoos. Their family, she said, is the lesson for not judging a book by its cover.
“I’m a goody-two-shoes teacher’s pet,” Tathiana said, laughing. A straight-A honors student, she will be studying criminology at St. Thomas University in the fall. Her middle sister, Andrea, 16, wants to study medicine, and the youngest, Jessica, now 13, wants to open Jr.’s second location one day.
“He always talks about how proud he is that we turned out to be the opposite of how he was,” Tathiana said. “But I’m so proud of him that I want to make him just as proud of my life.”
Jr.’s Gourmet was doing twice the business this week after his win at Burger Bash, the restaurant full from lunch until the dinner rush, a line of people out the door. Everyone was eager to try his winning creation, That Guy’s Burger: an angus patty with cream cheese and guava ketchup on Texas toast, covered in a basket weave of bacon that is then cooked on the griddle.
On a recent Thursday, de la Torre jumped from kitchen to cash register to touching tables. He stopped for just a moment during a quiet spell to reflect on how far he has come: His wife no longer has to work if she doesn’t want to; he’s considering moving to a larger space. And even his oldest daughter has gotten into the business, creating “secret menu” sandwiches. (We’ll only say “The Terminator” burger involves grilled cheese sandwiches as buns.)
The sleepless nights, he says, were worth it. His eyes well up. He wipes them with a skull-covered hand.
“I sleep good now,” he said. “This feels good. It feels really good.”
Jr.’s Gourmet Burgers
7 Westward Dr, Miami Springs
Hours: Monday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, noon-9 p.m.; Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday noon-4 p.m.