My uncle Alberto desperately wanted a business, so he convinced my grandfather, Norberto to buy him a used food truck. At the time, the only place that had plenty of food trucks was Los Angeles, CA.
Upon their return, my uncle painted the food truck, installed the equipment, and bought his first batch of groceries. He stocked everything from shrimp, Clamato and styrofoam cups among other ingredients. Alberto was a great salesperson but he always assumed the rules and policies never applied to him.
A coctel de camarón is a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail with tail-off shrimp, Clamato-based mix with species, topped with avocado, cilantro, pico de gallo and/or cucumber with a squeeze of lime and served with crackers or crunchy tortilla chips.
The Health department always cited my uncle for not having his proper health permit. Shortly after a few months of trying different routes and hiding from the Health department, he decided to make things right and open a location inside a gym.
Just a little FYI, I love the 80's, I'm obsessed with that decade. Unfortunately, for me I was a baby, so I didn't get to experience an 80's gym. Let’s get back to the restaurant, so the gym had it all: racquetball, aerobics classes, Jazzercise and small spot for a restaurant.
Alberto was excited to get the restaurant going inside one of the most popular gyms in the city. He introduced licuados or smoothies to the public. A licuado is a blend with fruits, milk or orange juice and sugar. He didn't make it the first year, but of course that didn't stop my uncle from pursing his dream.
He moved his restaurant to a slightly bigger spot adjacent to a local motel. This time around he wanted to serve actual food, so he presented tortas to El Paso. In this border town, no one had ever had of a torta.
A torta is a Mexican sandwich made with either a telera bun (flatter, softer, rounder rolls) or bolillo (oval shaped rolls), fresh meats, cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce and tomato. Depending on what part of Mexico you are located, tortas are prepared differently. Some regional areas make tortas with a spread of creamy refried beans and meats like pork, chorizo, ham, chicken, and milanesa (breaded steak).
My uncle prepared them with meat, cheese, shredded lettuce, and tomato. Tortas, licuados and cocteles de camarón were the main components of his menu. Within days, the business was an instant success. Everyone wanted to try what a tortatasted like and once they had their first torta, customers came back for more. My uncle's wife, Selma would be the cashier, taking orders and educating people about the then-unique menu.
Both my grandparents supported my uncle in the kitchen operations, making fresh milanesa, prepping salsas and cleaning out the shrimp tails. My uncle was on the griddle flipping buns, grilling steak, and chopping them into strips with the assistance of his oldest son, Stephan. His two youngest daughters were also working doing simple tasks such as packaging food and cleaning tables.
I would visit my uncle's restaurant and I was so excited to go because I got to work! My favorite part was cleaning tables and washing dishes. I took my time in cleaning each table, making sure it was presentable for the next patrons.
There was one issue preventing the restaurant to fully grow to its full potential, there wasn't enough space. By 11:00 am, all the tables and chairs were occupied and people wanted to sit down and eat their meals. Alberto decided to move to a bigger space, this time around it was an actual storefront with a covered parking lot.
The new space was able to handle 3x the volume. The back-of-house was divided into the kitchen and the drink station. Business was doing great; my family would randomly help on busy days or when the employees called in sick.
The success of this location spawned four other locations; one managed by Alberto, another by his brother, Eugene and the latest one launched by Alberto's oldest son, Stephan.
Alberto's younger brother Carlos was inspired to open his own restaurant; however, he named it differently.
Stay tuned as we explore Carlos' take on owning a restaurant.