A toast to the flavors of Mexico
- Published: September 24, 2015
The Facebook trumpets sounded loudly over the weekend as guests updated their statuses and posted pictures in celebration of the long-awaited opening of Doña Margarota’s, a Mexican restaurant at 1535 Xenia Avenue, in the old KFC building.
“I lived in San Antonio for 13 years and this was the first time since I left that I had what I consider truly traditional Mexican home cooking,” wrote one commenter.
“We’re actually on our way home now. I can definitely say it was delicious! I’m already counting the days before we can go back,” said another.
Doña Margarota’s is the brainchild of restauranteur Tony Avalos and his wife, Ana. They purchased the property in early 2014 and made steady, tantalizing steps toward opening, which kept village residents in deep anticipation. An enormous, colorful mural was painted on the outside wall and a referendum was passed in May 2014 that allowed the business to serve margaritas and other kinds of alcohol on the premises. ‘Margarota’ essentially means ‘giant margarita.’ While Avalos maintains that giant margaritas go great with the food, the decision to serve them is also a practical one.
Avalos began working in restaurants at age 14 and eventually managed and then owned a restaurant by the time he was 16. But since he was so young, he wasn’t able to serve alcohol in his restaurant and saw how detrimental this prohibition could be to a business. He said that people would come in, realize that they couldn’t get a beer with dinner, and turn around and leave. So like any driven entrepreneur, he took these difficulties in stride and used them as a learning experience, vowing never to open a dry restaurant again. He hasn’t looked back — he opened restaurants in Virginia, Chicago, and North Carolina before making his way to Ohio, where he currently operates eight other restaurants in the state.
Avalos is serious about his reputation as a restauranteur. When he was 14, he said, he thought he would go to college and figure out what he was going to do later. But he felt that waiting wouldn’t do.
“If I wait for my boss to come to me with an opportunity, I might be old by then,” he said.
So he decided to choose his path early, owning a restaurant while only a teenager and putting a tremendous amount of work into opening each new one, including canvassing for signatures in freezing temperatures to get a liquor license in 2014.
Despite his 23-year tenure in the restaurant industry, Avalos considered the menu and design of Doña Margarota’s as carefully as he did for his first restaurant. The menu features items personal to him, reminiscent of home and history in the way that only food can be.
When you’re growing up, you are very used to your family’s way of doing things, he explained. He recalled his grandmother’s cooking and said that her culinary gifts led to his grandparents opening a restaurant. The food served at Doña Margarota’s hearkens back to his grandparents’ place.
“I got the best recipes of my mother, my grandmother, my sisters and put them together,” he said. (His parents and siblings have also opened successful restaurants.)
Ana said that all the items on the menu are foods that she loves. Doña Margarota’s tries to have some of the most popular dishes and some of the most original dishes from Mexico, getting as close to authentic flavors as they can, she said. This approach has gone over well in the village.
“I’m very surprised at Yellow Springs,” Avalos said. “Everybody asked for mole, chile relleno, tamales — every single authentic Mexican dish, they know it.”
And he has learned that a restaurant’s aesthetic is just as important as the food. Avalos worked with Rodrigo Onate to come up with a compelling design for the restaurant. The inside is filled with colorful paintings and décor inspired by Mexican folk art called alebrije, which are colorful sculptures and paintings of fantastical creatures. Avalos told Onate that the style seemed to mix with that of Yellow Springs.
“And outside [on the mural] you have ‘the Queen of Margaritas,’” Avalos said. “She’s surrounded by birds and colors, drinking a margarita. That’s the message we want to give to the community — life is short and we need to live it the right way.”
Avalos said that there was a time for Italian and Chinese cuisine, and now its time for Mexican cuisine. Even places that serve Americanized fare — Taco Bell, Wendy’s — bring the flavor of Mexican food, he said. “I guess because it’s delicious? That’s the first thing,” Ana laughed, when commenting on the popularity of Mexican food in the U.S.
The popularity of Mexican food endures in the village, judging by the response of the restaurant’s soft opening.
“We didn’t tell anybody we were going to open. Come Thursday at 5 p.m., we decided to open,” Avalos said. “And we were packed Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
His persistence in serving margaritas didn’t hurt, either.
“We had a lot of customers,” he said. “I would say that 95 percent of Yellow Springs drinks margaritas.”