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Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz of Republica Empanada on Their Menu's Inspiration and Chris Bianco

Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz of Republica Empanada in Mesa
Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz of Republica Empanada in Mesa
Lauren Saria

This is part two of our interview with Marco, Jinette and Edmundo Meraz of Republica Empanada in Mesa. Today Jinette dishes on how she met her husband and why it wasn't love at first sight. Marco share the advice he got from Chris Bianco and where they got the inspiration for their Latin-inspired menu. In case you missed it, you can read part one, in which the family tells us why they choose to locate in Mesa, you can read it here.

See also: Republica Empanada Will Bring Latin Comfort Food and South American Specialties to Downtown Mesa, June 21

Two years after Jinette landed in the Valley, Edmundo arrived from Mexico with his family. His mother, as fate would have it, worked at Jinette's family's restaurant as a server and the two kids went to the same school -- which isn't to say they hit it off immediately.

'We used to fight a lot," Jinette says with a smile, recalling their days in school together.

After getting married, the couple had five children, all born in Mesa and most of whom still live there now. Jinette, who will be 65 in April, worked for the school district as a bus driver and Edmundo test-drove cars for General Motors. When her kids enrolled in school, Jinette began to clean houses so she could have a better schedule. She remembers being asked to cook black beans by the families she worked for because "back then, it was a big deal." Neither of them had ever owned a restaurant before now, though, or really considered it until a few years ago.

The idea began when the family started selling empanadas from a cart at a local (now closed) co-op. They quickly gained a following for their Latin eats and began to toy with the idea of opening a brick-and-mortar spot. They were "flirting with the idea" and looking for potential locations, casually, when they came upon the mid-century building just outside of downtown proper.

"We love this location because we're off the beaten path but still downtown," Jinette says.

"We were tempted to go somewhere like Tempe," Marco says. "But we're stuck to Mesa. Mesa is always ready for something new and fresh."

 

Combo Caribe
Combo Caribe
Courtesy of Marco Meraz

And this place definitely is. As far as food goes at the pan-Latin bistro, many of the dishes are taken from what Jinette used to cook for her kids and family. They're not entirely novel, but rather the family's "interpretation of traditional Latin American food," Marco says. The dishes not taken from Jinette's experience were created with over months of menu development with Marco. Some of the ideas were inspired by Marco's travels around Latin America and others from his dining adventures around the states.

"Without knowing it, those travels were inspiring what would come," Marco says. "But half the menu is what we grew up on in my mother's kitchen."

And the homestyle cooking is drawing crowds the family never expected.

"We got our ass whipped right away," Marco says, referring to opening day. He says during the restaurant's pre-opening test run, the lines ran around the center of the restaurant and out the door. These days, things have calmed down a bit, but the business still hasn't entirely settled into a regular rhythm.

During the first few weeks, the family says they had a huge turnout of Latin American customers looking for traditional dishes and, the family believes, a restaurant to call their own. Marco estimates that a full three-fourths of the restaurant's Spanish customers so far have been Colombian. There have been a lot of Costa Rican customers, too.

Jinette says they never intended to draw on the Valley's Latin American communities. In fact, she admits they didn't even know they existed until now.

"It's like, if you build it, they'll come," she says.

 

Left to right: Heidi Whitson, Marco Meraz, Jinette Meraz, Edmundo Meraz, Jason Navarro, Roy Reyes, Martin Garcia
Left to right: Heidi Whitson, Marco Meraz, Jinette Meraz, Edmundo Meraz, Jason Navarro, Roy Reyes, Martin Garcia
Lauren Saria

Your biggest inspiration:

Jinette -- Ghandi

Marco -- I know I'm not alone, but Chef Chris Bianco is definitely one of them. When he won the James Beard Award and helped put Phoenix on the culinary map, I was so proud that he was Arizona's own. It got me thinking about opening a restaurant. He inspired me to do something different and offer something unique, like empanadas, to Arizona.

Years later, when I was living in New York, I was fortunate to spend an evening with him and two mutual friends. That night, I shared my plans and ideas with him. He encouraged me to keep working toward it. He stressed that I stick to my vision and that I don't let other people's input persuade me much. Chris suggested that while I worked toward realizing my goal, I consider the tiniest details from the front to the back of the restaurant, that I should know how I wanted it to smell when people walked in. He said I should know what it would feel like as soon as anyone walked through the doors, what they would see and so on. It was so refreshing because he didn't say one word about having a business plan, success rates, pricing, how to advertise, expenses, profit and loss, or any kind of numbers and industry terms that we love to toss around. Everything he said reflected his love for food and his passion for serving food.

Your personal mantra:

Jinette -- Be always grateful for good health and being able to work. The universe humbles me. It's humbling to not just be a part of the universe, but to contribute to the universe in a positive way.

One thing you would want people to know about empanadas: How common they are throughout the world. Just about every region of the world has their version of an empanada: pot sticker/dumplings, calzones, raviolis, Cornish pasties, Jamaican beef patties, and pierogis. Even Snoop Dogg raps about Hot Pockets.

It's been really exciting to see how empanadas have brought such a diverse clientele together at our little restaurant so far.

Pan-Latin cuisine is: Think of Pan-American, and then narrow that down to Latin America. That's what we are. That's why we chose Pan-Latin to describe our menu. We represent different regions of Latin America through.

Biggest lesson you've learned as a restaurant owner so far: Patience. Being flexible to an extent. Inviting customers to provide feedback is important. Being open to suggestions without compromising who we are and what we offer. We're always looking for ways to improve our service.

Favorite meal to cook and why:

Jinette -- Soups. I love that they retain so many nutrients. I have so much freedom when I make a soup. I like using seasonal ingredients or whatever I have available.

In the fall I'll start making homemade soups from scratch here at Republica Empanada.

The best thing you've ever eaten:

Jinette -- Guanabana! I love it! It's my favorite fruit.

Marco -- I love a good "asado" or a gaucho-style BBQ. Perhaps my favorite meals were out in the countryside of the Argentine pampas. The Argentine asado is an all-day experience. It's perfection. "Brasa" or wood coals get piled up or spread out and cook the meat from a distance. Slow. No marinade. Only a bit of salt just before the meat starts to grill. Chimichurri is optional. Fresh bread, a simple but delicious salad and a proper malbec wine. Nothing compares to the beef that comes from free ranging cattle that grazes on the richest grassland in perhaps the world.

Favorite place to dine out: Mesa is all about great Mexican food options. Moreno's Mexican Grill on Horne and Broadway has been a family favorite of ours for many years.

We also really enjoy Backyard Taco.

The best-kept secret in cooking is:

Jinette -- To cook with love. For me the kitchen is like a canvas. I have fun.

Marco -- I feel like people can taste the love in my mom's cooking. She's truly in her element when she cooks. She's happy.

Where do you see yourselves in five years: Hopefully still up and running and satisfying appetites. If we be so fortunate, perhaps a second location will be in the works.

Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with:

Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay

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