El Centro chef-owner Allan Rodriguez had just gotten back from a furniture buying trip to Mexico when he spoke with Eater about the first year at his South End restaurant, which opened on May 26, 2011. Rodriguez came from a restaurant family and was running a construction business when he took a risk on El Centro, which has clearly paid off. When local restaurant critic MC Slim JB released his 2011 Devil's Dining Awards, El Centro won the "Top of the Bandwagon Award" for the new life and regional authenticity it brought to last year's upscale Mexican boom. Soon, El Centro plans to open a new patio that will add 14 outdoor seats. Eater spoke with Rodriguez, a native of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora, about how things have been thus far and his plans for the future.
So how did El Centro come to be? I have a construction business, and I was working across the street for a couple years, and basically I used to go to the previous restaurant that was there and became good friends with the owner, who is now my partner. I came out with the idea and told him I had something in mind, a new kind of restaurant, very authentic. I put out the idea for the concept, the decoration, the dishes, everything.
Coming from doing construction, where did you learn to cook? From my parents. They'd been in the restaurant business for several years. My father, my uncles, my grandmother, I've been pretty familiar with cooking and have been cooking since I was twelve years old.
Did you previously cook in any other Boston restaurants? Not in Boston. I did a lot of private parties for friends, but this is my first restaurant in Boston.
So were you very involved putting together the space? Yes. As soon as we had the idea to open up the restaurant I already had the logo, the menu, all the recipes, everything that I was cooking for friends. Basically the concept of the restaurant is dishes from the South with sauces from the North.
And how was year one? It's been excellent. Excellent, excellent. I took a shot putting on some dishes that not a lot of people knew. I've been living in Boston for twelve years, and I always found that there was something missing in all the Mexican restaurants around. So I came out with the idea that I would put out something that my mother cooks, something very, very simple. Natural, one hundred percent Mexican ingredients. I call my mother and ask her 'ok, what are you doing today for a special?' And I say okay, we'll do that as the special.
What are some of those dishes that you introduced, some of your mother's food? Honestly, all of them, but the ones that have been very successful are the chimichanga, in a special sauce. We have tacos, with handmade flour tortillas. And it comes with the whole nine yards: guacamole, pico de gallo, sauce on top, and the tortillas are my father's recipe for the last 45 years. We have amazing carne asada, charcoal-grilled steak. Pretty much everything I don't have to move from the menu because it moves every single day.
What's the must-try dish? Tampiquena. Which is basically a charcoal-grilled skirt steak with a choice of enchilada with melted cheese, and it comes with beans, pico de gallo and tortillas.
How were the first few days? We were packed. And since then, we have 45 seats now, and we serve from 100 customers a day to 220. The most important part for me is seeing the customer walk out happy - it's not like an uptight restaurant where you say oh, we can't cook this, we can't cook that. We open at 5pm and if a customer comes in at 4:30pm, my staff knows they have to welcome the customer, and serve a cup of coffee or margarita, while we work on it. Like I would do in my house.
Any surprises during the opening? You know what was very surprising? That a lot of well educated people came to the restaurant, people that knew the dishes. There's a lot of people in the South End that live in Mexico part of the year. I was amazed that they came and knew the dish that we were cooking, or they knew the name, or they went to a place that I had the recipe from. They come in and say 'wow, this is just like in Mexico, it's like I'm eating there.' That really surprised me.
Any major changes over the year? We used to have a small lounge, and we removed it to add eight more seats. It was a great move because now we can seat more people right away. Overall, I rotate the decorations every other month, so I put up new picture frames, new designs, new stuff. So the customers don't come in and always see the same thing. I changed the look of the menu, I change the pages sometimes. I had a guy from Mass Art draw on our aprons Mexican actors, so when you walk in, all my guys and I have actors on the aprons. Things like that.
Does it feel like it's been a year? Yeah.
Any plans for the future? If everything goes the way it goes, and our customers keep asking us, we'll probably look for a place that's a little bigger. As far as El Centro right now, we're fully operating the way I expected, but for sure I would like to open another place so customers have the experience of eating real Mexican food. Simple, with the correct ingredients. It's not rocket science.
Do you want to stay in the same part of town? I don't know, it could be anywhere. But definitely yes, it's in my mind to expand.
This weekend El Centro celebrates its first anniversary with special dishes like chiles en Nogada, a spicy mango margarita and a tamarind margarita. Guests will also enjoy free appetizers, on May 25 and 25. Call for more details: 617.262.5708.
· All One Year In Coverage on Eater [~EBOS~]