By Ray Stern
By New Times
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All were knocked off Tempe's main street more than a decade ago to make way for the Centerpoint project, which occupies the northwest corner of Mill Avenue and University Drive.
Ironically, demolition of the old buildings and construction of the office building that houses Chase credit card operations was hailed by the city as a major step in refurbishing "Old Town Tempe."
More recently, The Spaghetti Company, Stan's Metro Deli and Paradise Bar & Grill, all long-established businesses, have closed as the cost of operating on Mill Avenue climbs above what most small businesses can afford.
Tempe's drive to create the veneer of an "Old Town" along Mill Avenue is steadily wiping out anything that is genuinely old.
Increasingly, it is deep-pocket corporations offering middle-of-the-road Americana making a stand in Tempe's homogenous downtown.
In place of small, sometimes gritty but unique businesses, the city is welcoming franchise stores that have no roots in Tempe. Corporate chains such as Ruby Tuesday, Chili's Grill and Bar and P.F. Chang's China Bistro anchor Old Town Tempe's signature intersection at Mill and University.
The chains dish out unremarkable food while taking customers from the smaller enterprises whose owners live and raise families nearby.
Running a small business is a daunting task in the best of conditions. Being forced to move to less-desirable locations to make way for corporations that get millions of dollars in tax breaks from the city makes it even tougher.
One of a handful of remaining small businesses in Tempe to thrive despite the emergence of Old Town is the family-owned Restaurant Mexico.
Founded 22 years ago in a Mill Avenue storefront, the restaurant has prospered by offering authentic Mexican food at a fair price in a friendly atmosphere.
Bounced off Mill Avenue 12 years ago by the Centerpoint project, the restaurant landed one block east of Mill Avenue on East Seventh Street. There it continued to thrive next to another Tempe landmark, 6 East Bar, which has since closed in the face of the city's latest redevelopment blitz.
Now, once again, Restaurant Mexico is pulling up stakes. City, county and state taxpayers are funneling more than $12 million to MCW Holdings, a Tempe development company, to rip out a block of town and replace it with a $31 million project that will include more glitzy chain retailers, yet another parking garage, a park and condominiums that will start at $140,000.
For months the owners of Restaurant Mexico, Carolina and Gilbert Chavarria, searched for a new location they could afford in Tempe. Hundreds of loyal customers, many of whom have been dining at the eatery for more than two decades, wondered whether the restaurant that brought cilantro to Tempe would survive.
With the help of MCW Holdings, Restaurant Mexico found a suitable location a few blocks to the east at The Arches shopping center, 120 East University. The restaurant will open in its new location later this month. MCW Holdings is contributing more than $100,000 to help relocate Restaurant Mexico and build the interior of the new space.
Three openings and two relocations in 22 years. If any enterprise can pull off this feat in a city that generally snubs small business, it's Restaurant Mexico.
The secret ingredient is simple, says Carolina Chavarria: "We have an extended family."
Restaurant Mexico is a family affair with a supporting cast of hundreds.
Recipes for the food served were created by Carolina's mother, Micaela Tavera, and reflect the traditions of the central Mexico state of Jalisco, where Tavera was born 94 years ago.
For Restaurant Mexico's first 10 years, Carolina was the cook; she kept the business alive as it struggled to gain a toehold in the market. Her husband Gilbert helped manage the business day-to-day while their children pitched in whenever they could.
It took several years for the Jaliscan style to hook the taste buds of Tempeans, who were used to far different Mexican fare.
"We use the ingredients that central Mexico uses," Carolina explains.
In the early days, those items were not easy to come by.
"Back then, we had to go down to Nogales to get the cheese, the tortillas, the peppers and cilantro," Carolina says. "Now everybody knows about cilantro. Back then, nobody knew about cilantro. We would say it was a secret ingredient and we wouldn't give it out."
Instead of the heavy Cheddar cheeses that smother most dishes served in Valley Mexican restaurants, most Restaurant Mexico entrees are liberally sprinkled with a low-fat, white crumbly cheese called Ranchero.
The salsa--the litmus test of any Mexican restaurant--is always fresh, always good and always unpredictable. Sometimes the salsa is mild and sweet, other times fiery.
"It depends on the peppers," Carolina says. "The recipe is the same, but the peppers are always a little different. The cooks don't know how it will be until it's done."
It's not unusual for customers who have moved away to make a special trip to Restaurant Mexico when they return to Phoenix. One businessman recently ordered two dozen green corn tamales--to go--and took them home on his flight back east.