When Raymond Jones returned to Chicago last year, it was after a career as a rapper, making a song that was number 47 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, writing for FunnyorDie.com, and even suing Eminem. Now Jones, who also goes by Raydio G, spends most of his time in a small restaurant just south of Bronzeville. Seating about ten people, Jones’s new venue is certainly a contrast to the concert halls and studios that have previously marked his career. But for Jones, Love Taco, which opened in March, was a lifelong dream. Located on the corner of 51st Street and Michigan Avenue, Love Taco serves specialty tacos, as well as a mix of other Mexican food.
Opening a restaurant was a new experience for Jones, who has spent most of his life in the entertainment industry. After graduating college in 2007 with a degree in computer science, Jones decided to hold off on pursuing a career in the technology industry and try out an entirely different field: rap.
Growing up, Jones would practice tunes with friends. “I didn’t know I was good. I didn’t know I was dope,” Jones said. But motivated by his friends’ encouragement and his own love for rapping, Jones went to his mother with the following proposition: give him six months to make a career out of rapping. After five months, Jones and two other rappers received a record deal with what is now RCA Records of Sony Music. The group called themselves Hotstylz.
By May of 2008, they released a song, “Lookin’ Boy,” that reached number 47 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The fame was followed by what Jones described as “rapper stuff”—touring the world, holding concerts, and in general capitalizing on their newfound fame.
Having made a name for himself through the rap industry, Jones decided to start doing more comedy. He started writing comedy pieces primarily on websites like Funny or Die. “I fell into the whole comedy writing thing,” Jones said. His first pieces gained traction and offers continued to come in. Since then, Jones has written for the hit television show “Key and Peele” and published a relationship therapy book with a comedic twist, 48 Laws of Penis.
Despite his success with comedy and rap, Jones couldn’t shake off a desire to open up a restaurant. As with rap, growing up, Jones would always cook for friends and family. He cooked so much that his friends used to joke that he should open a restaurant. Finally, in 2016, Jones returned to Chicago, and what started out as a joke became a reality.
Part of Jones’s reason for coming back to Chicago was the changing nature of the Bronzeville community. “There’s a new resurgence in this community,” said Jones, referring to new stores and restaurants in the area. Between new grocery stores like Mariano’s and local investment in the community like the Forum and Bronzeville Cookin’ projects overseen by Urban Juncture, the Bronzeville business landscape has been undergoing a slow but long-expected, and often embattled transformation. For Jones, opening Love Taco was a way to “be a part of the change.”
When Jones started planning Love Taco last year, he said he wanted to have a restaurant that would provide Bronzeville with “different options.” To come up with recipes, Jones worked with a friend, Seth Rushing, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.
The specialty tacos live up to their name. Customer favorites include the Sweet Thang, featuring chicken and pineapple, and the Bob Marley. Shae Ellis, who has been working at Love Taco since it opened, said, “You don’t find these particular tacos everywhere.”
But Jones’s driving vision for the restaurant can also be gleaned from its name. From the romantic comedy posters that line the walls to the menu’s references to R&B songs—like the Purple Rain taco, a shout-out to the classic Prince song—love is certainly in the air at Love Taco. As he explained this, a classic love song began playing in the background—“Everything is love,” Jones added.
Part of the focus on love comes from Jones’s own commitment to love in his life. Along with his book on relationships, 48 Laws of Penis, Jones also makes humorous YouTube videos giving relationship advice. “I just want to bring the men and women back together again,” he said.
The love at Love Taco, though, isn’t about Jones’s career—it’s his vision for the restaurant’s role in Bronzeville. “Love is what this community needs more of,” Jones said.
Jones has a lot of faith in the neighborhood that he calls home. His love for Bronzeville and his desire to see it improve is why he brought Love Taco to 51st and Michigan. “Being from here, I loved Bronzeville,” Jones said, citing its architecture and rich jazz history as just a few examples of what makes the community special.
“Bronzeville is an awesome place,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, it has a black eye.” But he wants to counteract the perception he has encountered of his neighborhood as only marked with violence. Jones has often pointed out that Love Taco does not have bulletproof glass separating the customers from the kitchen, a common security measure in many restaurants nearby. “I’m running a restaurant, not a prison. I didn’t want to create that atmosphere,” Jones said.
According to Jones, measures like bulletproof glass lead people to assume that “something bad will happen.” He didn’t want to have that attitude. “I wanted to give the neighborhood a chance.”
Jones recognizes that his outside success is an exception to the norm—“Everyone is not as fortunate as I have been. I beat the odds.” Jones’s goal for the restaurant is simple: “I want customers to come back.” He didn’t mean that he wanted loyal customers who would buy from him regularly. He meant he didn’t want his customers to become “victims of the street.”
“I tell some of my customers, ‘I want to have this conversation next year,’” Jones said.
Part of Jones’s emphasis on preventing street violence comes from his own experience. A friend of his, Frank Hill Jr., fondly referred to as Marveloso, was killed last year in Austin. One of the items on the menu, the Marveloso Tamale, is in his honor, and all profits from its sales go to Marveloso’s children. What happened with Marveloso, however, never dissuaded Jones from opening up the restaurant. “I never thought I shouldn’t reach out to communities in need.”
Right now, Jones is involved in every step of the business. “I cook, I cashier, I even clean toilets,” Jones said. His mother, who so many years ago let him take a risk with pursuing rap, sometimes comes to work at Love Taco on the weekends. In addition to working at the restaurant, he is continuing to develop his comedy career, doing shows around the country; he hopes to eventually break into the film industry, too.
Jones even hopes to eventually expand Love Taco, opening up a new restaurant in another neighborhood, or as Jones put it, “in another community that is in need of a chance.”
When I walked into Love Taco, sitting in one of the stools by the window was a boy in the fourth grade, the little brother of one of the Love Taco employees. He struck up a conversation. He wants to be a NASCAR driver, a mechanic, a police officer, and a few other things—“I’m still figuring that out,” he said. But that’s fine, as Jones could have told him. Love Taco is a testament to the many paths you can take to achieve a happy life for yourself and your neighborhood.
Love Taco, 109 E. 51st St. Monday-Thursday, 11am-9pm; Friday, 11am-10:30pm; Saturday, noon-10pm. (312) 650-9635. facebook.com/LoveTacoChicago
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