Adios ... Again

Small businesses continue to flee downtown Tempe. Restaurant Mexico is the latest.

Restaurant Mexico's spirit doesn't stop at the doors. Carolina's trust in her employees is matched by her generosity.

When Mieko's eldest daughter, Heron, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy soon after her birth 13 years ago, Carolina stepped in.

"She made it so I could work whenever I wanted to," Mieko says. "And she just really kept me going, financially and everything. They are like family, man. They were having baby showers for me. They are really, really nice people."

Sherry Elman has been a steady hand at Restaurant Mexico for 11 years. She got the job one day when another waitress failed to show up.

Despite the long hours, and frequently hectic pace, Elman says she sometimes forgets that she is actually working.

"I watch people meet each other, get together, have kids and grow up. It's like a big family. It's a fun place to work," she says.

Restaurant Mexico is a precarious link to a different era in Tempe, a time not that long ago when small businesses could start in downtown and succeed.

"As far as I'm concerned, Tempe has turned into a power money struggle," Elman says. "It certainly is nothing like it was before. If I thought 30 years ago it was going to turn out like this, I would say no way."

That's why it's important to Elman and hundreds of other customers that Restaurant Mexico survive.

"It's almost like going to a friend's house for dinner," she says.
The uniqueness of Restaurant Mexico has not gone unnoticed by the developers who are transforming Tempe into a high-density, expensive city dominated by retail chains.

Ted Claassen, a partner in MCW Holdings, which has played an integral role in downtown Tempe's transformation, is an avid Restaurant Mexico fan.

"It's the only place I know where you can get authentic . . . cuisine where the ingredients are brought in fresh daily," Claassen says.

Though his company is helping to raise commercial rents in Tempe, he bemoans the loss of diversity.

"They are part of the downtown Tempe fabric," Claassen says of the restaurant. "We lose enough of those unique mom-and-pop concepts as it is. We want to keep every one of them that we can, and we want to attract others."

Claassen says Tempe is in danger of becoming just another "homogeneous" town that could exist in any part of the country.

"Just throw a dart at the map," he says.
To keep Tempe's uniqueness, it is important that "home-grown concepts" such as Restaurant Mexico remain, Claassen says. "They make you different from all other places."

Carolina, while thankful for MCW Holding's financial help in relocating the business, says the city should take action to stop the spiraling cost of doing business in downtown.

"I hear so much the concern that the small businesses, you know, that they are slowly dying out and going away because they cannot afford it," she says. "This is true. The prices are getting too high. They are trying to compete with Scottsdale, which is so high-priced. That's making the smaller businesses move away. Maybe they should ease up a bit there."

Carolina Chavarria seems confident that Restaurant Mexico will succeed at its new location on University Drive, across the street from Arizona State University.

"We don't have any concerns, everything has been so positive," she says.
But beneath the surface, there are worries.
The new location lacks free parking that has been both a blessing and a pain at the East Seventh Street location. For years, Restaurant Mexico has had to closely monitor the parking lot to keep people from leaving their cars and heading for other businesses on Mill Avenue.

There are other concerns, too. Whenever a business moves, it loses some customers who just don't bother to find the new location. The addition of more competition from the new development will also cut into the customer base.

"My mom has been pretty nervous about this," says Carolina's youngest daughter, Carol, who helps her oldest sister operate another Tempe restaurant, El Pollo Supremo, located just west of Mill Avenue on the south side of University Drive.

"We are pretty concerned about it and hoping everything will work out good," says Carol.

Restaurant Mexico is her parents' sole source of income.
Longtime customers and employees like Josic, Mieko and Elman have far fewer doubts about whether Restaurant Mexico will succeed at its new location.

"It just can't help but work," says Josic. "So many people like to eat there."

If the crowd that showed up Saturday night for Restaurant Mexico's last day at its Seventh Street location is any indication, the establishment will remain one of Tempe's most popular destinations.

Longtime patrons made special treks to the restaurant for a revelrous evening of chips, salsa and margaritas. Many stopped by to wish Carolina good luck, and give assurances they are eagerly awaiting the opening of Restaurant Mexico (III) at the Arches later this month.

As the crowd begins to thin out, Carolina and Elman sit down in a corner booth to reflect. Thoughts of all faces that have come through the arched doorway come flooding back. Elman has seen her daughters grow from youngsters grabbing the plastic toys that line a shelf by the cash register into beautiful young women who turn heads when they enter the restaurant.

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