Rene and Adelle Alcala recently opened their third Coachella Valley restaurant. They took over the former Louise’s Pantry in Palm Desert, and converted it into Bubba’s Bones and Brews. That adds to the first Bubba’s Bones and Brews, and Barrel District, both in Cathedral City.
They never intended to become local restaurant mavens.
“When I opened Bubba’s, it was just supposed to be a secure job for me,” Rene says. “I’d be the server, the busser and the bartender. I never dreamed that I’d expand to the patio and the next room.”
Rene has spent his whole life in restaurants—literally.
“My grandfather owned restaurants in Los Angeles,” he says. “They babysat me by letting me bus tables. I’ve dabbled in other things, but restaurants were always my comfort—what I knew how to do.”
Although Adelle had “many years” of experience waiting tables, she’d more recently spent 15 years in property management, and she figured she’d left her restaurant years behind. “I never thought I’d get back into it,” she laughs.
Armed with a few of their home-created recipes, they initially pursued an existing barbecue business. That deal fell through, but by then, their minds were set on barbecue and craft beer.
“We saw an idea, and thought we could add our own style, creating some unique touches,” Rene says. They decided to find another location and start from scratch.
In 2017, Bubba’s on Ramon Road was the proverbial hole-in-the-wall—a small room with a half dozen tables and a bar that looked into the kitchen. Before it became Bubba’s, the space housed Dish Creative Cuisine and, briefly, Mike’s American Bistro. Since then, Bubba’s has tripled in size with the addition of a patio and the adjoining unit.
“Cathedral City was a blessing,” Rene says. “We instantly built a cult following that supported us and promoted us on social media.”
Part of their success was due to a relative lack of barbecue in the valley; part of it was due to the Alcalas’ unique, contemporary flair. They call it “California” or “modern” barbecue, a style that pretty much allows free rein. “There’s no wrong way to barbecue, just different ways,” Rene says.
Most barbecue purists advocate for their own regional style. But … “if you make it too regional, you limit your base, and we just don’t have enough of that base here,” Rene says. “So we play with it, mix it up, have fun and use lots of sauces.”
The menu includes common items like baby back ribs, pulled pork and smoked sausage. But you’ll also find a lot of fusion: a spicy chorizo flatbread, a kielbasa quesadilla, jalapeno sausage wontons and brisket tacos. For the truly adventurous, there’s the El Diablo burger—a half-pound patty with smoked sausage, pulled pork, mango habanero sauce, sliced jalapenos, ghost chile aioli and apple slaw. There’s a huge chalkboard, highlighting the extensive craft-beer selection.
Barrel District, a couple of miles away on Date Palm Drive, followed in 2019. It took some elements of Bubba’s—the craft beer, the gastropub décor and a few menu items—and added a more modern, fresh California twist, alongside pizza and extensive vegan options, informed by the fact that Adelle and her children are vegan.
“When we go out, we can’t find many places that have vegan options and carnivore options side by side,” she says. “So we knew there was an opportunity.”
Since my wife is vegan, it’s also the kind of place we like to go. She loves the fried avocado tacos and the heirloom bruschetta, while I love the specialty pizzas, the avocado flatbread and the poke nachos. The plates are often showpieces of freshness and color, overflowing with leafy greens and garnishes. The menu includes several vegan desserts, which Adelle makes personally. While Barrel District only had a few months under its belt before the pandemic hit, the unique style and flair have attracted a strong local following, like Bubba’s did.
Then came the Palm Desert location of Bubba’s, in the former Louise’s Pantry space on Highway 111. Opening a third restaurant in the midst of a pandemic was hardly ideal. But, as Rene explains, “Because of COVID, we were never (otherwise) going to get a deal this good.”
The new space will allow the Alcalas to tap into a larger customer base and expand the Bubba’s brand. Rene enthuses over the size of the restaurant and the kitchen. Prior to Louise’s, it was a Tony Roma’s, so the kitchen is well-equipped for barbecue. He also likes the high ceilings, the industrial look and the décor.
Lunch, dinner and happy hour offer essentially the same menus as in Cathedral City, but they’ve also added breakfast. Was that simply because the previous tenants had done it?
“That’s part of it,” Rene says. “We actually bought the (Palm Desert) rights to Louise’s Pantry and were planning to continue that business.”
They inherited all the recipes, but after much deliberation made a change of plans.
“My wife talked me into it,” Rene says, half-joking. “We looked at Louise’s breakfast menu and decided we could put our own influence and brand on it.”
“Add a Bubbas flair,” interjects Adelle. “When people go out for breakfast, they want something big.”
“For example,” continues Rene, “we took the chicken-fried steak and made it a footlong steak, and made our own sauce. For the corned-beef hash, we decided to use our brisket.”
They’ve also added a vegan breakfast burrito, with a vegan egg alternative, plant-based sausage and plant-based cheese, topped with a spicy verde sauce.
“Even at vegan restaurants, you’re not going to find a burrito that size,” proclaims Rene.
They’re starting slow in Palm Desert—partly because of COVID’s limitations, but also by choice.
“I’m in no hurry,” says Rene, “I’d rather make a few people happy than try to sell a lot of food and leave a few people unhappy. We just want to get the ball rolling and work out the kinks.”
They’re working to find balance between running three restaurants. They’d questioned whether they could maintain all three, but they’ve promoted key staff at each location and say they’re comfortable with where they stand now.
“We’re not going to forget about Cathedral City,” Rene says. “It’s part of the challenge, but it’s been our moneymaker. It’s even outperformed the current market. We’re very attached to that restaurant. It’s our first baby and the one that got to us to where we are now.”
Part of the “problem,” if you could call it that, is that Rene and Adelle are so intimately involved. You’ll frequently see Rene shuttling between the kitchen and the tables, delivering food and bussing.
“We’re not proud owners; we’re both very hands-on,” Rene says. “We want to talk to every customer, to find out what’s wrong and what’s right. That’s how we evolve and move forward.”
Adds Adelle: “We’re busy with opening the new restaurant. But I still check in on the other places and see how they’re doing. I still stop by and clean the bathrooms.”
The Palm Desert space will help the Acalas further expand their business when the time is right. It will take some of the catering load away from the overstretched Cathedral City kitchen, and will likely act as a geographic center as they move forward.
“Right now, our plates are pretty full,” Rene says. “At some point, we may open a Louise’s Pantry somewhere else in Palm Desert, and we’d like to expand the Bubba’s brand over to La Quinta. But right now, we just have to focus on the three restaurants we have. It will be challenging. But if anyone can do it, it’s us!”