By Amy Palumbo-LeClaire
Courtesy of The Yankee XPress
Life is good for José Zuniga, an immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, who has chosen to “bring happiness to other people” while doing something he’s wanted to do since he was a kid—become a chef. In 2000, at the age of fourteen, along with his five older siblings, he came to America with family photos and a dream.
Thanks to the encouragement of a few people who caught sight of his talent and determination, this young man with ideas as sweet as his horchata juice has managed to garner quite a following at his recently-opened restaurant, Tacos Mexico, in the Auburn Mall Food Court.
“I’ve been here for two months. I love it. I really like to take care of people. Some people do things for money, I don’t. My regulars like to talk and tell me their stories. I try and make them feel comfortable. I want them to feel at home. So many people come to me and say, ‘Oh, José, I’m under stress… I’m this, I’m that. I have problems.’ I tell them life is good.”
José’s life hasn’t always been so good. He lost both his parents in Mexico, a loss he reflected upon with a rare show of quiet. “It was a crazy life. We had to survive.”
The Zuniga clan—Ignacio, Maria, Hugo, Adrian, Leticia and José—traveled lightly to America, bringing with them the few things they had, photographs and memories of their parents. They moved straight to Massachusetts and José attended Dudley Public Schools. The following year he began working two jobs (McDonald’s and Bigelow Nurseries) to help support his family. In June of 2015 José became restless, his desire to become a chef heating up.
“I need to have my own business,” he recalled. “I need to help my family. My sister and I got together and bought a food truck. We decided to save money. She trusted me. It was a challenge, really hard to get permits. I was trying so hard. I couldn’t wait. Then my friend Juan Carlos, who owns a tee-shirt store at Greendale Mall, introduced me to a woman named Irena (who eventually connected him to his first restaurant at that mall). ‘This is your dream. You can start small and go big,’” he recalled his friend’s words. “I tried and everything worked out for me. From the first week, everybody was so excited. People kept coming back and telling other people about me.”
José’s dream to cook expanded with his fearless attitude. In November 2016, with the help of Simon Malls, he seized the opportunity to open up Tacos Mexico at the Auburn Mall while his sister and co-owner, Leticia, stayed at the restaurant’s Greendale Mall location, where she currently works.
“José went to school, worked hard, and learned English. He embraced Massachusetts and his dream,” said Area Marketing Director Sheila Hennessy. “He worked together with his family to create recipes and come up with a business plan. It’s wonderful that Simon Malls can work with people like Jose.”
The Tacos Mexico owner, incidentally, does not take the help offered him lightly. “They helped me from the beginning.
Nobody does that for you. They trusted me without even knowing me. These people gave me a chance. I waited a whole year for this place to be open. They gave me the time and energy I needed. I hope it keeps on growing. I had a vision and I don’t want it to stop. I am already thinking of new ideas.”
His ideas have been given wings via the flow of Auburn Mall shopping traffic, along with a natural longing to listen to his customers, make them feel welcome, and even offer samples for the fickle Mexican eater. “One time a customer say to me, ‘I don’t know if I will like that.’ Try it! If you don’t like it, don’t pay for it,” he recalled. As far as the occasional unsatisfied customer goes, José admitted that he takes criticism to heart. “One customer came back. She was from Mexico and she tol’ me my food was good but there was something wrong with the seasoning. I felt so bad!” he expressed, a pained palm splayed against his chest. “I kept thinking about it all day. I couldn’t stop thinking about what was the problem with the beans.”
Unsatisfied, José pondered the seasoning issue some more. He investigated. Then it came to him. “You cannot microwave the beans, I tol’ my employees. It takes away the flavor.”
While handing out advice on Mexican dishes (and life in general) José Zuniga, from Guadalajara, Mexico, makes every effort to get to know his customers. “I feel so bad when I get too busy and can’t talk to my customers. They go see my sister at Greendale. They say ‘your brother ignores me now.’”
A visit to Tacos Mexico at the Auburn Mall offers a tasty explanation as to why people are talking and coming back. His family recipes – prepared with a passionate flair – are original and fresh. His sister’s guacamole, smooth and lemony, is as tasty as his homemade Mexican pastry. Whether trying out his gorditas, sopes, tamales, tacos, quesadillas, burritos, or tostadas, the first time or repeat customer can be assured of the Mexican-American’s promise: “My dishes are all made with love.”
Said Julian Reese, owner of Bartlett Tree Experts, and Thursday mall shopper, “They give you a lot of quality food for the price, there’s no question. It’s fast, convenient, and has a homemade feel. I like the tacos.”
José’s political views mirror the uplifting tone of his dishes. “Political rules are not going to change who you are. We can do it here. If you’re a good person and have dreams you are always going to do well. Be happy while you can. Why worry? If I have to go back to Mexico then I’ll go. I’m not afraid of anything. If I go through something hard or want to give up, I think about how hard it was to get here. I tell myself to get back on track. People come back because I make them feel positive. I bring people back to life.”
Tacos Mexico Hours are Monday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Write to Amy at email@example.com