LAURINBURG — Since its grand opening Monday, El Mexicano Restaurant at each mealtime has been a flurry of activity, with wait and kitchen staff working in tandem to deliver dishes inspired by Mexican and American traditions.
A variety of enchiladas, fajitas and tortilla soups are available for curious customers, but burgers, fries and chicken tenders are also on the menu at the South Main Street restaurant. Those dining immediately after the ribbon-cutting, which marked the grand opening, were serenaded by a live Mariachi band.
For restaurant manager Maria Mata, the event marked the beginning of her quest for success in the family business — and the addition of thousands of potential guests she expects will become closer than customers. After all, her father Juan chose the building, at 1229 S. Main St., because he felt Laurinburg is “a place where everyone knows everyone.”
“It’s a thriving town,” Mata said. “There were a lot of people that wanted to support us before we opened. It’s really family-based here.”
Mata has been working with a large crew since May to clean, paint and arrange the building’s interior and to construct a wall between the kitchen and dining room as part of a renovation following the departure of the last tenant, Ridge Runners,which closed in February amid a financial dispute between restaurant manager Mike Ward and building owner Jeff Hurwitz. Ward has since been charged with writing false checks.
A border which winds around the dining room area has been painted a lime green, wooden columns were painted orange and large decor now accents the brick walls and and tables arranged throughout the building. The building’s exterior now sports a warm stucco finish.
It’s a change that did not go unnoticed by the restaurant’s newest customers.
“The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the new carpet and the decorations,” said Lisa Alford, who on Tuesday was treating her 11-year-old daughter Kayla to lunch.
Kay Dutch and her daughter, Nicole Williams, both of Laurinburg, said they were curious about the new place and wanted to try it out as well.
“I had the —,” Dutch thought for a moment before chuckling, “pollo loco, I think. It was very large.”
Dutch said she noticed the dining room was more spacious, leaving room for more chairs and tables.
“And it’s a lot cleaner,” Williams added.
Throughout the renovation process, Mata said locals would often stop in to offer to lend a hand, or just to take a peek at the ongoing renovations.
Juan Mata, who lives in Charlotte, leased the building on the recommendation of family friends who knew the entrepreneur wanted to expand the business to a second location. The first, in Clover, S.C., has been open for nearly a decade.
“He’s definitely going to be checking in,” Mata said. “It’s not just about money for him. He wants to have a stable location and make everyone comfortable when they come in.”
A native of Mexico, Juan moved to America as a young man and worked in food service for more than 20 years before starting a restaurant of his own, staffed mostly with family members. Mata and her siblings grew up working as taste-testers as her father re-worked traditional family recipes for mass appeal.
Though she pursued an accounting degree, Mata’s love for the business — and her family — ended up bringing her back to her roots.
“This has really been a family effort,” Mata said. “From me to my youngest brother and the people who’ve all been here and known each other for years — this is our shot.”
Rachel McAuley can be reached at 910-506-3171. Follow her on Twitter @rachelmcauley1.