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By Ray Stern
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Another customer who now lives in San Diego brings several five-gallon jars with him whenever he returns to Tempe to restock a supply of Restaurant Mexico salsa.
The recipes conjured up by Tavera, who mastered the art of cooking first at home and then in restaurants in the Midwest 50 years ago, are strictly followed by the tight-knit kitchen crew.
"We have not changed our menu in 20 years," Carolina says. "I don't think our customers want us to change."
Consistent quality featuring fresh ingredients delivered daily, unique takes on standard Mexican dishes, popular daily specials, including green corn tamales, chicken mole and chile rellenos, along with reasonable prices--a recent dinner for six including drinks and dessert came to $65--has created a devoted clientele.
But few patrons can top Michael Josic's devotion. The 40-year-old Tempe craftsman is known as a finicky diner. Restaurant Mexico meets his exacting standards--no matter what time of day.
"There was a time when I ate here three times a day, several times a week," says Josic. "It was usually when I lived someplace else and came back here and I had to catch up on my fix."
Josic conservatively estimates he's dined at Restaurant Mexico more than 1,000 times in the past 22 years.
"They have what I want--good food, good service, a nice, relaxed atmosphere and good prices," he says.
A cozy setting--children freely wander from table to table and waitresses sometimes hoist a tray in one hand while cradling a baby in the other--is a reflection of Carolina's emphasis on family. It's a deep-rooted tradition that grows as naturally as the cilantro that seasons the dishes.
"It is the culture," Carolina says. "You know, we look after the family, the mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, everybody looks after each other."
The devotion to family begins every Tuesday morning with an outing in honor of Carolina's 94-year-old mother, Micaela Tavera.
"Every Tuesday I dedicate it to her. We pick her up, and my daughters, my mom, my granddaughters, we all go to Denny's and we all have breakfast there. And then they go to their jobs and I take her shopping for the week and whatever else she has to do."
Tavera was born and raised in Guadalajara. She moved to the Chicago area when she was about 21.
"It was easy to cross the border back then," Carolina says of her mother's migration.
Carolina's parents met near Chicago, and her mother soon began working in restaurants. Carolina was born in East Chicago, Indiana, and learned the art of cooking at her mother's knee.
Carolina met her own husband, Gilbert, in East Chicago, and the couple were married in Mexico 40 years ago this month. The family likely would have remained in the Chicago area if it were not for misfortune.
"My third daughter is a special daughter. She was born with Down's syndrome," Carolina says.
The daughter, Sylvia, required open-heart surgery in the summer of 1977. Doctors suggested a move to the Southwest would help her recovery. Carolina's brother had moved to Tempe and had been urging Carolina to move to Arizona and start a Mexican restaurant featuring Jaliscan cuisine.
The doctors' suggestion cinched the decision.
"When the doctors said that, we said okay. We better start looking for a different place to live," Carolina says.
So they packed up and headed to Tempe.
They just didn't pack up their three children. They also picked up Micaela along the way, as well as the remains of Micaela's deceased husband. ("He's still with us," Carolina says of her father's remains. "We didn't want to leave him alone back there. We are very close.")
Since arriving in Tempe in 1977, Carolina and Gilbert have seen their family grow with another daughter, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. But the Restaurant Mexico family transcends bloodlines.
Carolina's warm smile and personality soon attracted a host of loyal employees who adopted her compassionate, fun-loving nature.
In the early years, when the restaurant was on Mill Avenue, it sometimes got pretty wild when the twentysomething waitresses got revved up and tossed inhibitions to the wind.
When business was slow during the summer, employees would pull out all the stops to attract customers.
"I remember when Jane Mullins used to pull her blouse up and press her breasts against the plate-glass window on Mill Avenue," says former longtime employee Mieko.
Back then, the staffers weren't averse to shunning customers who didn't understand the Restaurant Mexico ethos.
"If we didn't like somebody, we didn't wait on them," says Mieko, who worked at the restaurant from 1980 through 1988. "They would come in, sit in here and wouldn't get waited on and finally they would leave."
One particularly irritating customer got a pitcher of water dumped on his head.
Despite the sometimes bizarre, if not rude, behavior, Carolina's embrace of each employee's uniqueness helped created a palpable atmosphere of tolerance.
Creative employees left their marks on the fare. Sometimes, a new dish would appear on the menu, named after the worker who created it. The Clare Burro, featuring vegetarian whole beans, remains one of the establishment's most popular entrees years after its creation by a flamboyant waiter.