For a long time, Roberto Mendez thought his entrepreneurial dream was to own and operate a hotel. The San Salvador native studied hotel and restaurant management in Japan, learned Continental-style culinary techniques, and came to the United States as a chef for Benihana. Some time during his professional journey, however, he changed course and realized what he really wanted to do was introduce New Orleanians to inexpensive, authentic Mexican food -- minus the grease present in many versions -- served in a small, casual neighborhood eatery and bar.
With that thought in mind, Mendez 15 years ago opened the first Taqueria Corona at 5932 Magazine St. (897-3974) with two wire-spool tables and 10 stools at a bar overlooking the kitchen. He was the only employee. The idea was a hit with locals, and within a short time he bought the building that housed the original taco stand and expanded the seating space, and later opened a second restaurant in the then-fledgling Warehouse District (857 Fulton St., 524-9805). Today, Mendez and three of his brothers operate two additional locations (3535 Severn Ave., Metairie, 885-5088; 1827 Hickory Ave., Harahan, 738-6722).
"I opened small to see if it would work," he says of the Uptown eatery. "I didn't even list the telephone number for a long time. I introduced the word 'taqueria' to Louisiana." (A taqueria is to tacos what a pizzeria is to the Italian pies; "corona" is Spanish for crown.) He opened on July 4, 1988, without so much as a sign outside and had a few customers trickle in. The next day, those diners brought several friends and the business grew slowly. It hit a crescendo that led him to expand after a local newspaper ran a story about the hidden treasure and Mendez had so many customers the next day that he ran out of food.
The secret, he says, is using all fresh ingredients, hand-cutting produce such as avocados and tomatoes used in guacamole and salsa, and using cholesterol-free peanut and olive oil as well as trimmed lean meats. The menu also offers diversity, expanding Americans' image of tacos made only with ground beef, tomato, cheese and lettuce to more adventurous versions of tacos and burritos made with pork, steak strips, shrimp, fish, tongue, chicken and chorizo. Everything is made fresh to order and most is priced a la carte. The atmosphere is one in which people feel comfortable to eat leisurely and visit.
"We don't make Taqueria," Mendez says of his staff. "The customers make Taqueria. It's an unsophisticated, unpretentious way of doing things. ... I was influenced by New Orleans tastes; I wanted Taqueria to be like a neighborhood po-boy place, like Charlie's Steak House. It's a very simple way of doing the food. It's home food."
On the drink menu are eight types of top-shelf tequilas for margaritas and manzanitas, a tequila & sour green apple-based martini; bloody Marys and screwdrivers; Cuba Libre, Coke, rum and lime; wines and both domestic and imported beers. Desserts include flan, Mexican rice pudding and the new Flauta Duice: vanilla cheesecake with a banana rolled in a flauta with strawberry sauce and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
Jewelry designer Barbara Heinrich, whose creations can be seen (and purchased) at Katy Beh Contemporary Jewelry (3701 Magazine St., 896-9600; www.katybeh.com) will be in the city Oct. 3 and 4 to meet people who collect her jewelry and unveil an expanded collection during Art for Art's Sake. Beh is the exclusive New Orleans retailer for Heinrich's contemporary creations, and the designer's expanded collection will remain in the Uptown jewelry gallery Oct. 1 through 31. An opening reception is planned from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Oct. 4.
Health care professionals, researchers and families of patients who have suffered brain injuries are invited to attend a two-day conference Oct. 3 and 4 at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel (739 Canal St.).
Bancroft Neurosciences Institute will host the meeting, titled "Brain Injury: Impact and Outcomes," which includes talks about brain injuries and recuperation. Health professionals can receive continuing education credit for attending. There also will be a meeting to discuss formation of a Louisiana chapter of the Brain Injury Association of America. Registration is $250. For more information, call (856) 429-5637, ext. 593.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation is holding its 20th annual Race for the Cure to raise funds for breast cancer research and community-based outreach programs from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Oct. 5 at City Park.
This year, the Komen Foundation is partnering with the national "got milk?" campaign to increase awareness about studies that suggest milk consumption may help reduce the risk of breast cancer. Racers can drink free milk and take a photo with a milk moustache, with the got milk? campaign donating $1 to the Komen Foundation for every photo snapped.
- Restaurateur Roberto Mendez stands in front of a painting of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and Mardi Gras revelers, which he says melds the revolutionary idea and New Orleans-inspired spirit of his Taqueria Corona eateries.