Ole! the Mexican Population in America Is Booming -- and So Is the Number of Restaurants They Open

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Bull, Times-Union staff writer

Enchiladas where fried chicken was once served.

It's certainly a symbolic change, symbolic of changing tastes and a changing population. For decades, Jimmie's Buttermilk Chicken sat on Beach Boulevard, next to the boat ramp on Pottsburg Creek. It served fried chicken, the classic Southern dish.

But now the building is El Rodeo II, brightly painted in the red, green and white of Mexico. The fried chicken and creamed peas have been replaced by tortillas, beans and carne asada.

There have always been a few Mexican restaurants in Jacksonville. In the last couple of years, though, there's been an explosion of pollo loco and chile relleno. There's El Potro, El Rodeo, El Mariachi, El Apache and El Taco Feliz. There's La Nopalera and La Frontera, Los Toros, Mi Toro, Castillo de Mexico and more, moving into shopping centers and closed Pizza Huts.

They're serving big steaming plates of Platillo del Mar, Milansea and Pozole Rojo.

Still, local owners said, most customers go for the dependable combination plates, the ones with tacos and burritos, for enchiladas and chimichangas, rice and beans. More about that later.

What's going on in Jacksonville is going on across the country.

Jim Peyton is a consultant to Mexican restaurants. He's been studying Mexican cooking for 30 years and writing about it for more than 10.

"I've had a theory about that," he said. "There's something almost habit-forming about the combination of chilies, cheese and corn tortillas. Studies show that chili peppers cause your body to release endorphins, a drug like morphine."

Immigration is playing a large role, he said.

"There are more Mexicans," Peyton said, "and they're opening more restaurants."

Mexicans are the largest number of recent immigrants. Nationally, there were about 760,000 Mexican-born immigrants living in the United States in 1970. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there are now about 10 million.

And they are, in fact, opening restaurants.

Peyton lives in San Antonio part of the year. And even in that Texas town, which has had a strong Mexican culture for decades, the influence is growing.

He counts Mexican restaurants in the phone book. Eight years ago, he said, there were about 350. Now the number is close to 500.

Brenda Russell, publisher of El Restaurante Mexicano magazine, a trade publication, said her database has more than 27,000 Mexican restaurants, up about 2,000 from last year.

"And that's not all of them," she said. "That's the ones we know about."

Russell also subscribes to a service that keeps track of restaurants that just opened or transferred ownership, and she's getting listings for 50 to 60 Mexican restaurants each week. That's two or three times the number she gets for Italian restaurants, which she also keeps track of.

"I talked with a liquor distributor," she said, "and he said the biggest growth through the Midwest is in multiple independent Mexican restaurants. People will go into small towns and open one Mexican restaurant. Then another and maybe another."

AUTHENTIC MEXICAN

That's exactly what's been happening in the Jacksonville area, where there are now three La Nopaleras, two El Rodeos, two Castillo de Mexicos and so on.

Ricardo Conde's family opened El Rodeo in Orange Park about three years ago. Last year, he and his wife, Lola, opened their own El Rodeo II on Beach Boulevard where Jimmie's Buttermilk Chicken used to be.

Ricardo Conde came from Mexico five years ago. She's from El Paso, Texas, of Mexican descent and speaks the English in the family.

The menu is typical, several dozen dinners, in addition to the usual combination plates.

El Rodeo does cater to a more Mexican crowd than many restaurants. Lola Conde said that perhaps 40 percent of her customers are Mexicans. …