Toward the back of the restaurant, near the kitchen, there’s a soft tinkling of silverware and a whishing of napkins as the young staff prepares the day’s table service. Above their low conversations and laughter, the dining room’s stereo is playing a 1960s pop song that seems a satirical reply to the steamed-over window panes: Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.”
Creating a home-like atmosphere is a hard trick for any restaurant to pull off, especially during the holiday season, but this one is definitely in the zone — even though only a handful of customers have arrived as yet. “When I look out these front windows, it’s a strange feeling sometimes,” says proprietor Cesar Pedraza. “Downtown Jasper strongly resembles my hometown in a lot of ways.”
Cesar, at age 38, is a highly substantial young man with an easy grin. His hometown is Los Reyes de Salgado, in the western Mexican state of Michoacán. It’s a hilly agricultural region, about an hour’s drive from the Pacific Ocean, and an encyclopedia lists its main exports as avocados and blackberries.
“Back in the days when people would come to Mexico and conquer it,” Pedraza says, “we were named for ‘The Kings of Salgado.’ But then it was just shortened to ‘The Kings’...Los Reyes.” When it came time to pick a name for their new restaurant venture in Jasper, he says Los Reyes was a natural and unanimous choice for him, his brothers Carlos and Ignacio, and their wives. But how did family members from 1,700 miles away end up in Jasper, Ala., as opposed to Birmingham or Montgomery or Atlanta?
Cesar gives this question some deep thought, while looking out the window at a street of storefronts that evoke memories from his childhood, except that the signs here are in English instead of Spanish.
Finally, he shakes his head and shrugs. “It’s complicated, and would take too long to explain,” he says. “Destiny?” He grins. “Our family had not been in the restaurant business. We just came here to do...you know, the American dream. My brothers moved here one at a time, starting 23 years ago. I’m the youngest in the family, I’ve been here 21 years. Each one of us found restaurant jobs, working for very nice people, and we learned the business and decided to try it for ourselves. “It’s working very well, so far. We’ve been blessed ... to find this location, and to have an amazing landlord. We can’t complain at all.”
Pedraza says that decisions such as the restaurant’s menu are done, like the name choice, on a group basis: “Except for a couple of additions, we’ve had the same menu in the year that we’ve been open. We wanted to keep it simple... good flavorful, traditional Mexican food, including some really authentic dishes that nobody else around here has. “We don’t copy from other places. We have our own crazy ideas. And people keep coming back, bless ‘em. We feature the fish taco, which is one of my brothers’ own recipe, that we prepare in a unique way. A recipe that I created is the pollo loco, which is our best-seller. And the way we do the pork taco — you could go get one in Mexico right now, and it’s the same as here. And we do the carne asada, the right way. Some of the menu is Tex-Mex, but these others are authentic.
“The menu’s working well for us, so we’re planning to keep it as it is. It’s not so large that it’s overwhelming, either for the customer or for us. Some menus are so big they get you confused, but ours is simple.
Working in the kitchen, you get new ideas all the time. But some you take to the field, and some you don’t.”
Back in Mexico, some of the dishes that Los Reyes features are sold by street vendors, Cesar says, which relates to one of the biggest cultural adjustments he’s had to make in transitioning to the U.S.. He demonstrates, the fingers of his left hand making a walking pattern on the table: “Mexico,” he says. “Shoes, or a bus.” His right hand operates an imaginary steering wheel: “Here, automobile. A good, dependable one. Daily.”
The language barrier, on the other hand, has not been a problem, Cesar says. Some students of English as a Second Language report that Southern dialects are trickier to understand than others, but not for him: “This is the kind of English we learned from the beginning, so it has always felt natural. It wasn’t difficult at all. We’ve adapted very well, my brothers and I have. Jasper’s a wonderful place to live.”
As for the business’s next few years, “We want to be improving our menu, but very gradually,” Cesar says. “Not just jumping on something because it’s new. We figure if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But still you have to keep improving, or you’ll lag behind. Carlos is especially good with new ideas. We all chip in, brainstorm, throw it out there, and hopefully it works. So far, so good.”
A process of
Their choice of opening time, 10:30 a.m., was an experiment with mixed results. “We figured there were people who’d want to get an early lunch, beat the crowd and go back to work. We’re used to it now, so we’re keeping it. I think it’s a good idea, it’ll just take a while to catch on. You’ve got to innovate, do things better for the customer. When a business is as high-pressure as a restaurant, time off becomes a precious commodity. Cesar relaxes by working out, playing with his five young children, taking his wife to lunch, watching sports. “I follow football 365 days a year,” he says. “But the thing about the restaurant business is that you’re working seven days a week. Even if you’re not at work, your mind is. And people you work with are calling with questions. But it’s something I deal with. I’ve been in the profession so long, it’s all I know.”
But when it comes to personal enjoyment, Cesar says his business has a unique upside as well: “Probably the best thing about the restaurant situation is that your wife and kids can come visit and spend time with you during the day. Other places, like if you work in an office or at a mine or you do electricity, if you’re fortunate you get a one-hour break for lunch. But here, it’s not unusual for our families to spend two or three hours with us.
”There’s a whole lot to be said for that.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is email@example.com)