Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz of Republica Empanada on Family and Mesa

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Marco, Jinette and Edmundo Meraz Owners and chef Republica Empanada republicaempanada.com

This is part one of our interview with the Meraz family, the folks behind Republica Empanada, the Latin American eatery that opened in downtown Mesa in June. Owners Jinette (she's also the chef) and Edmundo join their son Marco, who serves as general manager, to talk about why they chose the midcentury building in downtown Mesa and how much the city has changed during the past four decades. Be sure to come back Tuesday for part two, when Marco tells the story about how Chris Bianco inspired him to open his own restaurant.

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

Inside downtown Mesa's newly opened Republica Empanada restaurant, a brightly colored 10-by-10-foot mural covers a portion of the long wall with inset windows installed specifically to allow for natural light and a street view. The art is small enough -- and partially hidden behind one of eatery's low, four-person tables -- that on your first visit you might not even notice it. But the 100 square feet of paint might be the most interesting thing in the newly renovated building.

The mural, painted by local artist Lauren Lee, depicts an orange and yellow Arizona sunset behind a pink portrait of the Four Peaks. The view is the one you'd see if you looked east from downtown. It serves as a backdrop for blue rolling waters of the Salt River canals and in the forefront stands an oxcart loaded with agave.

The traditional oxcart, or carreta, is Costa Rica's most famous craft. They were used to transport the country's coffee beans to market during the 1800s. In the mural, it is a symbol of Jinette Meraz, Republica Empanada's owner and chef, who was adopted from Costa Rica in 1964. Inside the cart, the agave plants represent her husband, Edmundo, who was born in Mexico and moved to Mesa just two years after his future wife. The couple's five children, all born in the East Valley, are present by way of the Arizona desertscape in the painting.

It's a perfect summation of the family history that runs through the entire restaurant.

The wall art was one of the finishing touches on the two-year renovation project that preceded Republica Empanada's opening earlier this summer. Much of the work was done by Edmundo and his son Marco, who works as the restaurant's general manager.

With the help of friends, family, and the community, the owners have turned a run-down former Mexican eatery into a chic if simple restaurant with plenty of homespun charm. They added windows, installed sleek modern seating, restored the long-forgotten landscaping with cacti inherited from neighbors and friends ("You see that 15-foot Saguaro? We brought it here ourselves!" Edmundo says proudly), and breathed a new life into a building that had been a restaurant sinkhole for years.

"I wasn't looking to buy [a building]," Edmundo says. "And when my daughter and son first told me about this place I didn't want anything to do with it. But when they moved the window up and I saw the wall . . . I was sold immediately."

The wall he refers to is an interior rock wall standing in the restaurant's entryway. With its large, layered natural stones, the fixture indicates the kind of time-consuming craftsmanship Edmundo points out you rarely find in newly built buildings. He runs his hands tenderly over the stones, pointing out the quality of the materials and the places where he and his son patched the wall to return it to its past beauty. It's pretty clear the former test car driver knows a thing or two about using your hands.

But it wasn't just the building's old-school charm that drew the family to this locale. The Meraz family is deeply connected to their city.

In the nearly 50 years that Jinette Meraz has lived in Mesa, she's lived within a three-mile radius of the city's historic downtown the entire time, she estimates. Orphaned at age 7, she moved from Costa Rica to Mesa to live with her adoptive family in the mid-'60s.

Her new parents owned a Spanish-American restaurant across from her school, though Jinette says she didn't spend much time working there as a child. Back then, though, Mesa Junior High was the only middle school in town and her family's restaurant was the go-to hang-out for kids looking for buttered tortillas and milkshakes.

"We've seen Mesa be transformed from a town into a city," she says, recalling the days before the freeway reached into the desert past her town, when cruising between Dobson Road and Mesa Drive the was cool thing to do.

"It was just a country little town," she says. "I'm surrounded by history."

Five words to describe Republica Empanada: Friendly, family, sexy empanadas, and Mesa . . . Yes, Mesa!

The best thing about Mesa: Our downtown. We have a very cozy downtown. We're very excited about the direction it's moving in. Downtown Mesa has a wonderful selection of family-owned restaurants, shops, boutiques, and stores that all offer great service. We have the Mesa Arts Center, The Nile, Mesa Amphitheater, ancient ruins, design centers, museums, a brewery, a couple of great wine bars, cafes, and college campuses all within very close proximity. Our downtown has a ton of character and we're not littered with corporate or franchise restaurant chains. Mesa has a unique history that goes back to the Hohokam Indians who thrived in this elevated part of the East Valley. We inherited a sophisticated hand-dug canal system that they used for farming. And just like Phoenix and the rest of the Valley, this modern city rose from the ashes of a civilization that abandoned Mesa a few hundred years ago.

Favorite dish(es) on the menu: After the empanadas, we love the arroz con pollo, maduros, yuca frita, and the black bean salad.

One thing most people don't know about you:

Marco -- I'm a total cactus nerd! My collection of different cactus and succulent plants totals more than 150 and I have way too much knowledge about scientific names for desert plants.

Jinette -- In 1948, there was a Civil War in Costa Rica. It was a 44-day period that saw Costa Rica's bloodiest event of the 20th century. Women and children were ushered to the outskirts of town in the areas that experienced conflict. I was born during that war in the mountains of San Pablo, in the fields of a coffee plantation, under the stars and the moonlight. That same year I was born, after the war, our president dissolved our military. Today, Costa Rica boasts no military and the highest literacy and the highest employment rates in Latin America.

If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be to:

Jinette -- Nepal. If I can't climb Mt. Everest, I'd like to see those mountains from close-up.

Marco -- Easter Island. It's the most remote place on Earth.

Favorite childhood food memory:

Marco -- My mom making tamales during the holidays and arroz con pollo to celebrate anyone's birthday

Jinette -- I was orphaned at the age of 7, so my sweetest memories are in the kitchen with my mom and my family when I started learning to cook at that young age before I lost my mom. The aroma of cumin triggers those wonderful memories the strongest. I love cooking with cumin.

The ideal comfort food is: Chinese takeout and homemade soups.

Your culinary guilty pleasure:

Jinette -- Ice cream

Marco -- Whataburger is my favorite burger. But I actually don't feel very guilty about it.

One food you can't live without:

Jinette -- Beans

Marco -- Burritos.

Your essential ingredients, the ones you couldn't cook without: Cilantro, cilantro, and cilantro

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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