GILFORD — El Tequila, this town’s newest restaurant, dates back to one day in 1986, when a trumpeter walked into a North Carolina diner.
That trumpet player was Mexico City native Felipe Cruz Sr., then part of a mariachi band playing a circuit of Mexican restaurants throughout the American Southeast. This particular location, in Kingston, North Carolina, had been one of the busiest restaurants they played at, but this time it was clear things had changed. There were new owners and the tables weren’t filling up like they used to.
“By being in the background, in the group, they could see that they had really messed up,” said Felipe Cruz Jr., who is serving as El Tequila’s director of operations while his dad searches for help. new recipes in the Mexican capital.
Cruz Sr., along with some of his bandmates, ended up buying this restaurant in Kingston and bringing it back to success. This marked the start of a restaurant career for Cruz Sr., who bought and sold, opened and closed dozens of restaurants in various parts of the eastern United States over the ensuing decades. Lately, he’s turned his sights to northern New England, where he sees an opportunity for his brand of authentic, home-style Mexican cuisine, paired with an extensive margarita menu.
Cruz Sr. currently operates restaurants in Augusta and Auburn, Maine. As an avid boater, he was drawn in to start his third in the Lake District. He found an opening in the plaza that currently houses Walmart, in a storefront that previously contained an Asian restaurant. The space attracts heavy foot traffic due to nearby businesses, but required more than a thorough cleaning, Cruz Jr. said. “They totally emptied it.”
The cleanup required the removal of the ventilation system, all kitchen equipment and ceiling tiles, but when complete it created a hygienic canvas to create a space suitable for serving food in which Cruz Sr. has been specializing for over 20 years. This is the kind of food he served to guests at his house, his son said. “Everything is fresh and handmade daily,” said Cruz Jr., “We fry all of our own fries, make our own salsa, all of our protein is marinated in their own marinade.”
And, of course, there are the cocktails. Cruz Sr. didn’t name his restaurant “El Tequila” for nothing. There are over 30 tequilas behind the bar, and the margarita menu features 25 different concoctions, all hand-shaken to order.
“It’s all about the tequila,” said Cruz Jr. When it comes to food, he said fajitas are a big seller and burritos are designed to satisfy even the hungriest diners. For him, he gets nostalgic and orders a supreme quesadilla. “I’m getting young again and eating at his restaurant,” he said.
Those who like it hot should ask for a side of the habanero sauce, which uses chunks of avocado to balance out the floral punch of the chili.
El Tequila opened on New Year’s Eve and has already begun to make a name for itself, using a simple strategy that Cruz Sr. first learned decades ago as a mariachi. As his son described it, “It’s all about good food, great service. You will get a good meal here, good drinks, relaxed atmosphere.”