Like clockwork every morning, David Perez walks into Huaraches Moroleón, a Mexican restaurant tucked away on the corner of Philo Road. He begins to prepare breakfast for his youngest son while preparing the restaurant for the day. For Perez, family is at the center of everything, even in running his restaurant.
When Perez first learned to cook, it was out of necessity as he had just moved to California from Moroleón, Mexico in his early 20s.
“When you move from Mexico to the United States, you have to do it yourself,” Perez said. “Do you want to eat? You have to do everything. There is no mom or dad with you, so do it yourself.
Perez moved from Los Angeles to Urbana in 2001. Unlike Los Angeles, it was hard to find authentic Mexican food in Urbana. If Perez wanted it, he had to.
Perez’s desire for Mexican food led to a weekend gig where he sold carnitas out of his garage. He later added huaraches to his menu, a popular dish back home.
The community and Perez’s friends and family loved his dishes and he wanted to do something more. So, in December 2012, Perez opened Huaraches Moroleón. The restaurant is named after its best-selling dish and a tribute to Perez’s hometown.
Looking back, Perez reflected on how difficult the early days were.
“It was just me and my wife, and sometimes we would cry a little bit,” Perez said. “The first 6 months were difficult. There was no business because people (in Urbana) didn’t try much.
Serving authentic Mexican food in Central America was a challenge. Perez said he had trouble getting the right ingredients. He also had to hire and train staff who were unfamiliar with the traditional Mexican style.
But despite the challenges, Perez said his hard work paid off.
“When you like something or feel like you want to do something better, you just have to make the decision of what you want to do and do whatever it takes to keep going,” Perez said.
All of the recipes are hers and resemble her mother’s cooking growing up. They are also inspired by the cuisines he enjoys in other places.
“When I eat at a restaurant and there’s something I like, I try to fit it into my style, and we’ll offer it as a special for a year,” Perez said.
Like similar family restaurants, the pandemic hit Huaraches Moroleón hard, but Perez persevered. Joined by his wife and son, Perez spent more hours at the restaurant. He said it was a blessing because he could spend more time with his family.
“We lost all the server workers and now we’re starting over, but we’re starting over with my family,” Perez said.
Perez said he couldn’t have done it without the Champaign-Urbana community. He pays tribute to the locals, his sons’ teachers, the police and the fire department who have continued to support his business over the years. Perez also congratulated his wife, who has been there from the start.
While the business has grown significantly over the past decade, Perez has no plans to open a food truck or second location. He is proud to be able to serve everything from his cozy corner of Philo Road.
“We want to keep it small so everything can be under our control, the quality is the same and have good service,” Perez said.