Courtesy Mark Hernandez
Mark, his nephew and sister, in the “factory.”
op into Señor Manuel Mexican Cuisine
just about any evening and you will find the restaurant filled with regulars. Some come with a giant margarita glass in hand, as they belong to the Mega Margarita Club. The regulars are greeted by name, the staff asks about their weeks, their trips, their lives.
Sure, the restaurant, opened in 1970 by Manuel and Lucy Hernandez, feels a bit dated. But that’s the charm of the place.
Mark Hernandez, Manuel’s grandson, says his grandfather came to Colorado from outside Acapulco, with a stop in San Francisco, where he attended culinary school — and met Lucy.
The recipes come from Manuel’s mom. “It’s unique. It’s not Tex-Mex, it’s not Baja,” Mark says. So what is it? “No one’s ever asked me that,” Mark says.
When it comes to family businesses, the saying goes: The first generation starts it, the second builds it and the third sells it. But at Señor Manuel, there are now seven family members from four generations working together, and standing together to protect the business. Even their regulars recently defended them following a negative media review. They’ve also survived threats from the city, as much of the North Nevada Avenue corridor was declared blighted to make room for newer businesses.
What they’re fighting for is more than a family income; they’re defending tradition. That tradition is probably best defined by their tortillas and chips. If you’re looking closely, the menu indicates both are made “in the factory.” And that’s not hyperbole. Mark walks me through the kitchen and down a flight of stairs to Señor Manuel’s “factory,” where they make masa from scratch, and two conveyor belts fill the room. [location-1]
Mark says they buy about $10,000 worth of corn once a year, though the price of corn has gone up thanks to things like ethanol fuel. They store it until it’s ground and made into masa; it goes into the machine that forms the chips or tortillas, and then onto one of the conveyor belts. The chips are baked before they’re fried. The flour goes through a similar process, minus the frying of course, on a separate line, on its way to becoming tortillas.
Mark says they have the factory running about twice a week. They sell their chips at the restaurant to take home, and also supply chips to the Margarita at Pine Creek. An attempt to sell them in Safeway stores some years back failed, because these are fresh chips made with no preservatives.
It would take more than expensive corn to change this family tradition, but much as the allure of education pulled Manuel out of Mexico, Mark, 28, recently worked his last shift at the restaurant.
This week, the third-generation family member heads to Texas where he will be pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. (While working full-time, he completed his bachelor’s degree in English at CSU-Pueblo, in May.)
Regulars came out in force for his last shift on Aug. 3. Of course, it was a Friday night, so they would likely have been there anyway. But as Mark walked around the dining room, he was stopped for hugs and best wishes from people who probably watched him go through puberty. He’s been officially working at the restaurant since he was 15, though he started helping out when he was just 10.
Mark chatted with the staff too, sometimes tipping them off on the preferences of his regulars. Like a matchmaker, he considered who would best serve his regulars and “re-assigned” those customers accordingly.
“They want me to stay,” he says, speaking of his family, and the regulars would like to keep him around too. Though, he says, the majority are supportive of this move.
The goodbyes didn’t stop on Friday. The next day the restaurant closed at 4 p.m. for the staff, family and regulars to gather for a going-away party. The special-event room adjacent to the dining rooms was packed. Yes, they served the popular housemade chips, but there were wings, mozzarella cheese sticks and sandwiches on the menu this evening too. (Mark laughs as he says he’s a terrible Mexican because he can’t handle spicy food anymore.)
Before the deejay starts spinning tunes, Mark’s aunt grabs the microphone and says a few words. As she chokes up, so does most everyone else in the room.