Conquistadores: Suddenly, downtown Lawrence is rife with Latin-tinged restaurants

As the owner of Lawrence's first downtown Mexican restaurant, Phillip Rodriquez, owner of La Familia at 733 N.H., has been frustrated with the sudden spate of Latin-tinged eateries downtown. He says his business is down 30 to 40 percent over the past two years.

As the owner of Lawrence's first downtown Mexican restaurant, Phillip Rodriquez, owner of La Familia at 733 N.H., has been frustrated with the sudden spate of Latin-tinged eateries downtown. He says his business is down 30 to 40 percent over the past two years.

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Live painting by Puerto Rican artist Jose Gameliel Crespo Rosado is just one of the ways Tapas Mexican Food, 724 Mass., is trying to stand out. When Tapas opened in January, it became the seventh locally owned Latin-tinged restaurant downtown and the third to open since October.

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Jose Alvarez runs Mexquisito for his brother Angel, who also owns West Lawrence's Tortas Jalisco. Mexquisito, 712 Mass., is one of two Mexican restaurants to open up in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street within the past two months.

If you like Latin flavors, nowadays Lawrence’s downtown is ground zero for your dining experience.

Want an old favorite? Check out La Familia.

Authentic Mexican? Mexquisito is there for you.

Nuevo Latino? Esquina is the place for you.

Tacos? Fuzzy’s Taco Shop takes them seriously.

Straight Latin? La Parrilla is the way to go.

Straight Mexican? Cielito Lindo has what you need.

Free food with your margaritas? Tapas will fill you up.

A Latin-tinged choice while dining with others? Several restaurants have Latin-themed dishes, everywhere from The Global Cafe to Free State Brewery to The Mirth Cafe.

To say Simon Bates is feeling a bit smothered would be a slight understatement. A co-owner of Esquina, he says that all of a sudden, the competition is kind of ridiculous.

“Oh, yeah, there’s like 500 of them,” he says with a laugh about the sudden spurt of Latin restaurants within a four-block radius. “There’s so many different types of Latin American food. Everyone is trying to take a different spin. And that’s what we did when we opened. I feel like we got to build up a good clientele these past two years and so it definitely did help to be on the forefront of that trend.”

That trend started two years ago, when Esquina took up shop in the former Round Corner Drug space. The idea was Nuevo Latin cuisine — taking traditional ideas then breaking the rules. At the time, downtown was home to only three other locally owned Latin restaurants: La Familia, Cielito Lindo and La Parrilla. After Esquina opened, the trend seemly broke open, bringing in three long-planned Latin restaurants in the past six months: Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Mexquisito (from the owners of Tortas Jalisco) and Tapas.

Lawrence has more than doubled the number of Latin restaurants downtown since 2009. In the 700 and 800 blocks on Massachusetts Street there are four alone. Three of them new since winter began.

The influx has been one of hope and one of frustration, depending on who you are. If you’re Phillip Rodriquez, you’re wishing for the way things were even five years ago. Rodriquez is the owner of La Familia, a restaurant his mother originally opened in North Lawrence in 1987 before moving to its downtown space at 733 N.H. in 1991. Being well-established is both a blessing and a curse, says Rodriquez, who estimates that since Esquina went in his lunch business is down 30 to 40 percent. That said, he’s not sure if that’s because of competition or the because of the downturn in the economy.

“I’m kind of shocked that this many opened up in a short period of time. Fuzzy’s and Tapas and Mexquisito all opened up within a three-month period. And Mexquisito and Tapas are right behind me,” Rodriquez says. “I can’t say they’re terrible and I can’t judge them for what they’re doing because everybody’s got a right to have a business, but Lawrence is not big enough for this many right now.”

John Records couldn’t disagree more. It could all be perspective, but the co-owner of Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, 1115 Mass., says he’s eaten at every other Latin American restaurant downtown and thinks there’s a niche customer base for each.

“Over the course of the summer we sampled all those, and we saw something to like in every single one, but we just felt we were doing something different,” says Records, whose shop is one of 51 franchises and counting. “There is a definitely a supply and demand at work here. There is a demand for Mexican-style food. And I think that the people that have invested their money to do this ... believe that the demand is not saturated. That there’s plenty of room for folks to exist.”

The owners the newest restaurants to hit downtown — Tapas, 724 Mass., and Mexquisito, 712 Mass. — are also optimistic. They both feel their restaurants are unique enough to make it. Both Gustavo Juarez of Tapas and Angel Alvarez of Mexquisito are confident they have what customers will want to spend their dollars on.

“What we’re trying to do is be unique and different than anyone else,” says Alvarez, who worked with his brother-manager Jose to make sure Mexquisito was different from the family’s flagship restaurant, Tortas Jalisco, 534 Frontier Road. “There can be 100 restaurants, but you have something that only you have that’s unique, you’re OK. All the dishes that we have downtown, you can go to any Mexican restaurant and not find a single dish that’s the same.”

Over at Esquina, 801 Mass., Bates isn’t taking any chances. He truly believes downtown Lawrence is in a dog-eat-dog situation when it comes to restaurants of all kinds and is taking appropriate measures to stay new and different.

“We see the same customers every day. I know there’s only X amount of people who are eating out downtown and it’s just a matter of where they’re going to go,” says Bates, who is also a co-owner at The Burger Stand at the Casbah, 803 Mass. “We’re actually trying to move more in the direction of Mediterranean Spain, old rustic dishes. Changed the menu, changed the layout. Paella, lots of ham, oysters. We’re going to have a seafood bar and that’ll be out in the dining room. So, we’re making some changes to keep things interesting and to stay competitive.”

Bates says those changes will come this month and that they are more of a response to the total number of restaurants downtown, not just those with Latin flavors.

“There’s a lot of restaurants that go out of business — that don’t even make it a year,” Bates says. “I feel like there’s people that come in on a busy game day weekend and see how busy the town is and then they want to open a restaurant in Lawrence, because they think it’s like that all the time, and it’s really not. It really challenges everyone to do a better job. It’ll be survival of the fittest.”

Comments

Megan Green Stuke 5 years, 10 months ago

I love Esquina, but they're changing format so who knows what to expect there. I have long been "over" La Familia, although it's my husband's fave. We had Mexquisito on Friday night and I LOVED it. THOSE CHIPS! Good margs, too, albeit my husband found the price a bit high "for mexican food" - even though they claim it's a bit more upscale.

I love Fuzzy's Tacos, much as I hate to love a chain. Priced right, fast, delicious.

My last couple experiences at La Parilla were sub-par, but that was mostly due to wait staff issues, not food.

Black bean quesadillas are one of my three go-to items at FSB.

All of this is just to say, I think they can all make it. At least, if most people are something like me and could eat a taco or some facsimile thereof almost every day.

Viva la Latin flavors!

Geronimo 5 years, 10 months ago

Mexquisito is by far the best Lawrence has ever had!

Scott Tichenor 5 years, 10 months ago

Most sub-par, Esquina included. Krause knows how to cook but the supervision in that restaurant is a disaster. Changing the menu and focus won't change anything unless there's better supervision. Mexquisitio--disappointing first visit.

Rae Hudspeth 5 years, 10 months ago

People said the same thing about "all the Mediterranean places" a few years ago: The Mad Greek, The Aladdin Cafe, The Pita Pit, Vegetarian Bistro, Genovese. All with a different focus, but to the average Joe, all similar.

The point is a healthier range of choices gives everyone a place to call "the fave" especially when it comes to such a diverse ethnic food as "Latin" or "Mexican". I get annoyed when one claims the be the only authentic; it's like saying that only a Sicilian deep dish is a Real Pizza.

All but the strictly vegetarian place have stayed, by offering variety and a unique angle on each dining experience..

Cara Banglesnatch 5 years, 10 months ago

And yet none of the mexican restaurants deliver......

Lawrence Morgan 5 years, 10 months ago

I would hope that none of these Mexican restaurants use transfat in any of their dishes. If they do, they should be boycotted!

Let's hear from the people at the restaurants and find out what they use in their cooking and recipes.

brewmaster 5 years, 10 months ago

I heard that Chris Kobach is launching a counter-attack to stop influx of the "Latin-tinged" resturaurant gangs in Lawrence.

irvan moore 5 years, 10 months ago

it's to bad we can't get a restaurant or two like tin pan alley or paradise or the blue bird, i'd just like to be able to have good quality reasonably priced american food downtown

Scott Morgan 5 years, 10 months ago

or a good soul food joint, Strouds type place, actually and factually Lawrence is getting pretty lame. Much more fun to head to the Legends.

Evan Ridenour 5 years, 10 months ago

La Familia is struggling because the portion sizes have become miniature, the food quality has plummeted and yet some how the price has greatly increased. No one in their right mind would elect to eat there.

PS - This is from someone who used to love La Familia... You can't change an arm and a leg for tiny qualities of blah quality Mexican food and expect to make it when your restaurant is within easy walking distance of 30 other restaurants. La Familia was on the way out long before these other restaurants opened........

Meatwad 5 years, 10 months ago

Too many of the same style (more or less). I wish there was another choice for Indian food, one that was cheaper, than India Palace. Good food but too expensive. I'm glad Curry in a Hurry is an option, but it isn't a restaurant. Downtown has a few too many restaurants in general, but we certainly don't need more of the same.

shipoffools 5 years, 10 months ago

LOVE Esquina Chillaquilles! I am sure whatever they change to, it will be good.

Tapas is good for regular style Mexican.

patkindle 5 years, 10 months ago

if you want to have good quality reasonably priced american food or any type of food you best bet is to stay home and make it yourself no tax, no tip, no complaining about the quality or service of course you have to get off your butt, and you will have the kitchen to clean afterwards, but thats life La Famila was always my favortie, but they are never a bargain, and i didnt plan on getting out for the cheap anyway but if it was free, some folks in lawrence would still whine

Beth Ennis 5 years, 10 months ago

I love Mexican, and love all of these places. yes, they are all a little bit different and I like going to a different restaurant every time we go out to eat. However, I wouldn't mind seeing a German restaurant in Lawrence, or maybe some French cuisine. I hope all the latin/mexican restaurants can make it, I hate to see anyone go out of business, but I sure would like more variety!

Sally Piller 5 years, 10 months ago

Enough already! Will somebody please open a real Provencal French restaurant? You'd think with the popularity of Julia Child that would be a hit. I was hoping that was what Krause was going to do since he has the skills. I was so surprised he did a burger and a taco joint. I am glad Esquina is going more Spanish. Can't wait to try the Paella.

irvan moore 5 years, 10 months ago

i'd rather see a paula dean type restaurant

DPW 5 years, 10 months ago

During the 1970's, when my older siblings attended KU, I sometimes ate at a downtown mexican place called the Aztec...did the "La Familia" exit in downtown Lawrence in the 60's or the 70's? If not, La Familia cannot be the first downtown Mexican restaurant.

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