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SoCal Mexicali Grill to bring Southern California cuisine to New Kensington

BRIAN C. RITTMEYER| Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 12:01 a.m.

Before Jeff Cieslewicz starts cooking his Southern California-­themed menu in New Kensington, he’s taking a trip to the state to get some ideas.

Cieslewicz, 38, of Latrobe is a chef and partner with Sean Watson, 41, a businessman from Lower Burrell, in SoCal Mexicali Grill, a restaurant they plan to open in November at 700 Fifth Ave.

Bought by Watson in November 2018, the building is across from Penn State’s The Corner, the co-working and entrepreneurial learning center. It was previously home to Tommy Chen’s China Bistro.

Cieslewicz said this will be his first visit to California. Over a week there in October with his wife, Michelle, he plans to immerse himself in California food culture and come back inspired.

Southern Californian cuisine differs from Mexican in being more meat-based, without rice and beans, Cieslewicz said.

“I love that style of food,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel right without going there and experiencing it firsthand.”

With a Southern California base, SoCal will offer dishes with Californian, Mexican, Hawaiian and Japanese influences. The menu will include vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.

The restaurant will be open for breakfast and lunch. The morning menu will include fresh juices, acai bowls, avocado toast and other light and healthy fare. Lunch will see dishes such as carne asada, carnitas, poke bowls and ramen.

“You won’t see fryers here,” Watson said.

Plans for dinner hours and offerings are evolving and will be based on demand, Watson said.

“My passion here is Southern California flavors and fresh, vibrant ingredients,” Cieslewicz said. “I think that passion is really going to show in our food.”

Watson said there will be something for everyone.

“It won’t be like anything else in town,” he said.

Cieslewicz was head chef at Knead Community Cafe for two years, where he and Watson met. He helped Watson launch botL, a restaurant Watson opened in New Kensington in 2020 with partners Dante Cicconi and Corey Pistininzi.

Going into SoCal with Cieslewicz was “an easy partnership to create,” Watson said.

After Knead, Cieslewicz was facilities manager at Amplify Church in Plum. He said he left that job because he felt “called” back to New Kensington.

“I want to be part of New Ken­sington,” Cieslewicz said. “I love it here. It’s worth driving an hour a day.”

The building has three storefronts, with four apartments above. Watson runs his business, Sustain-ABLE Matters, from there. Cleopatra’s Coiffures, a hair salon, is in another storefront.

The apartments are unoccupied. Watson has not started renovating them yet, saying he’s working from the bottom up.

Because the space for SoCal had been a restaurant, Watson said it’s more ready than the former Freeport Road bar where botL is located. Besides replacing the walls and flooring and bringing in a new flattop, nothing else needs to be done, he said.

They plan on being open six days a week and closed Sundays. Cieslewicz said he expects to be there every day at the start, and they’ll eventually hire five to 10 people.

Watson said SoCal Mexicali will have a feel-good, laidback atmosphere. Ordering and paying will be centered on a smartphone app. While the eatery will be focused on carryout, he said there will be seating for 30 to 35 people to eat there and enjoy the vibe.

Watson said New Kensington is becoming a hub for food faster than he believed it could happen. There are many options already, but they want more.

“We have an end goal here that is growing this community one step at a time,” Watson said, “and that’s going to include some Southern California flavor.”

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