The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now,featuring a series of "as told to" profiles that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.
My food, at this new restaurant, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, calls for wine. Mexican wine. Here’s what people don’t know: Mexican wine is good! I worked really hard to get it here, though. Good tequila, we already had. Mexican wine? No one knew it existed. Not really.
I’ve been here for 21 years. California, Florida, then back to Cali. I have this crazy background. My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses; my father was an elder in the church. My family was all bakers, all the way back to medieval times. I used to go to my grandfather’s bakery in Juarez. My parents met and got married in a bakery.
In California, I’m 10 years old, it’s hot as shit, other kids are out playing in a pool somewhere, and I’m helping my dad put masa through the grinder. My uncles have a refurbished 1940s tortilla machine, and we’re cranking out tortillas in the heat of summer. I’m going, “I swear, I’m never gonna do this for a living.” But at 15, I was making carnitas and selling them at my parents’ bakery. At 17, I was popping out tacos. I like to sell things. I’m a merchant.
I’d be in my dad’s bakery, and I’d be like, “Dad, let’s sell carnitas!” He said, “You do it!” I went over to my uncle’s. “Tio, Tio, can you teach me to make carnitas?” I came back and borrowed money from my parents. I bought a copper pot and pork butt and a lighted case. I made carnitas, and they sold out. I paid back my parents, and then I went out and bought a pair of skis. My mother goes, “What is that? Mexicans don’t ski!”
Later, I’m living in Florida, working at a bank, being successful but not happy. I come back to my mother’s in California, because she’s sick and she asks me to. I said, “I’ll stay a year.” After my mom died, I came to Scottsdale Culinary School. Flash forward to 2002, I’m getting ready to open Barrio Café. By year two, I had the second-largest Mexican wine list in the United States. No one else was interested in Mexican wine!
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I already taught people how to eat at my first restaurant, Barrio Cafe. Now I’m teaching about wine. It’s time to learn to drink Mexican wine and cocktails. People think of wine and they think of Italian, French, Spanish. For the same reason, they think of crispy tacos when they think of Mexican food. People ignore that Mexico City is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The food is incredible. And Mexican wine is wonderful. But here in the U.S., they’re still a little pendejo about it.
I’m gonna take credit for bringing it here. My wine vendor, Enrique, comes in here. I say, “Do you know Mexican wine?” I say, “I don’t want any of your fucking Spanish wine. Get me some Mexican wines. Here is where you gotta go, take the weekend, go find out for yourself how great this wine is.” He did, and guess what? I’m his best customer.
This new restaurant has tequila drinks, the best tequila. My tasting menu has beer in it. It opens with a margarita, and ends with a cordial. I want to showcase the full gamut of food and drink. I’m forcing you to learn something new, for Christ’s sake.
I suck at so many things, especially dancing. But I’m really good at teaching about food — about food and wine. And I’m good at opening restaurants. — As told to Robrt Pela