Adios ... Again

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

One by one, they have been forced out of downtown Tempe in the name of progress: John's Shoe Repair. Long Island Pizza. Rundle's Liquor & Market. The Q N Brew.

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.

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.

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.

Tears well up in Elman's eyes, brightening the makeup sparkles she had dashed across her cheeks for the special occasion. "It's really, really sad," she says.

But Carolina smiles widely, offering assurances that even in the midst of upheaval she will offer stability.

"Everything will be the same," she says.
The food, the decor, the staff, the atmoshpere--and the jukebox that has been dishing out many of the same songs for 20 years.

If anyone can keep the restaurant alive, it is Carolina.
She is a woman who believes deeply in keeping things together. She brought the remains of her father to Arizona when she moved here 22 years ago to improve the life of her "special" daughter.

It was through Sylvia's disability that Carolina and her family found new opportunities in Arizona.

Even in the face of an uncertain future for her business and for Sylvia, Carolina knows where her strength resides.

"They told us we would be eligible for hospice care," she says about Sylvia. "I said, 'No, we don't need that. She has her family, me, and all her sisters.'"

And, of course, the extended family of hundreds of customers and employees of Restaurant Mexico.

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