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Mexican fare made with love

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Frank Gonzales was advising a woman on salsa: The green one was milder, the pico de gallo was spicier, and fresh — he'd made it that morning.

She ordered both and another green sauce he suggested. In the end, she mixed them all together to see what that would be like (she liked it).

"See, this is exactly what I wanted, a place where people wander in and stay longer than they need to," he said.

Gonzales was talking about his restaurant, a new Mexican place on the West Side called Mi Cocina de Amor. It opened Monday at 711 Bigley Ave. (former site of Tudor's and, most recently, Hog & Dog).

Gonzales' grandfather was from Mexico and grandmother from Portugal, and he grew up out West, land of the taco truck and breakfast burrito. He moved here from Tucson, Ariz., a year and a half ago to be with his fiancee, Julia Higginbotham, who was born and raised in Charleston.

The couple met online last year while Gonzales was still living in Tucson. After corresponding on the Internet for a while, Gonzales made his first trip to Charleston 18 months ago. Originally planned for a week, it actually lasted three. After that, he flew back to Tucson, sold his house, and was back in West Virginia 10 days later — this time for good.

"He started cooking at my house, and I couldn't believe the flavors he could bring out in food," Higginbotham said. "We really thought people needed to taste his food because it was so good."

There's a reason for that: Gonzales doesn't have any formal culinary training, but his family has been running restaurants for generations. His grandfather, the one who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1947, opened a restaurant called Poncho's in Tucson soon after he arrived.  In Mexico, he had been a shoeshine boy, but before he died, he had half a dozen versions of the restaurant scattered throughout the Midwest.

Gonzales saw his father run several restaurants, too, and started working in them when he was 8, sweeping the floors.

This is Gonzales' first restaurant of his own, but he says everything about the experience has come naturally to him. Everything he has to do, he's seen done a dozen times before.

The menu at Mi Cocina de Amor — which means "My Kitchen of Love" — isn't so different from the menu at his grandfather's restaurant decades ago. Before opening, Gonzales and his assistant holed up in the kitchen for several days making all of Gonzales' family recipes, figuring out how to make the same food consistently and in large batches.

The result is a menu of authentic Mexican dishes, peppered with references to his family's specialties, like his grandmother's sauce. He plans to have tortillas shipped in from Arizona every week.

"The shipping costs more than the tortillas, but it's worth it," he said.

"It's authentic Mexican food. Not that there's anything wrong with the Americanized stuff, but it's not what I'm doing here."

More specifically, it's food from the Sonora part of Mexico, the northernmost part of the country that borders Arizona, not Texas, where Tex-Mex style food comes from. In this region, and Gonzales' restaurant, they serve a lot of rich red sauces and white cheeses.

There's a local slant, too. Gonzales is proud that he's been able to employ six people from the community who were previously out of work, making some small contribution to the local economy he's so recently become a part of.

He hopes the restaurant will be a way for him to embed himself in the community here. Already, he's started to recognize people from the neighborhood, and he hopes his restaurant becomes a sort of fixture there over time.

"When people eat, that's very personal for them," he said. "And if you can make it about more than just the food, you can really make it into an experience."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.  


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