Each customer at Perrysburg’s Cocina de Carlos is ushered in by the clang of dishes in the kitchen, the hum of customers over their hot plates of fresh tacos and a warm welcome from those who work at this Mexican restaurant. Owner Carlos Mendez speaks of food and his restaurants with great love, seeing them as a way to connect to others.
From the beginning, José Carlos Mendez found fellowship with others through food. Since he was fourteen years old, he worked in his father’s restaurant and butcher shop in Jalisco, Mexico, learning recipes and trade secrets. In 2000, Carlos immigrated to the United States to help a friend in Mississippi run a restaurant. Bringing all his knowledge from home with him, he worked in restaurants across America, moving from Mississippi to Illinois and then to Indiana before finally settling in Toledo, Ohio. Although he has lived in many places, he has found a home here in Toledo.
“I’m Mexican, yes. I’m an immigrant, yes. But I live here. I raise my daughter here in Toledo,” he said. “I am a human being. I’m nothing strange. I mean, it’s a place we choose…or the place chooses me to grow here. And I’m part of the community.”
And Carlos isn’t the only one. Hispanic immigration to Ohio surged beginning in the 1960s as immigrants from Central and South America moved for economic opportunity. This immigration trend continued in Ohio through the 1980s and 1990s into the 21st century, especially in cities like Toledo. According to the 2010 census, nearly 350,000 Ohioans identify as Hispanic, approximately 50% of whom identify as being of Mexican ancestry. Lucas County has one of the largest Hispanic populations in all of Ohio.
In 2013, Carlos opened his restaurant, Cocina de Carlos. Over the next six years, he opened three more restaurants in the Toledo area: a second Cocina de Carlos in Waterville, Carlos Poco Loco in the downtown area, and Carlos Qué Pasa near the University of Toledo. With each new restaurant, he hoped to create more opportunities for his employees. Whether related by blood or not, each person at these restaurants is “part of the family.”
“I feel I need to do something for them,” he said. “They come with more friends, and I say, ‘I need to open something for them.’”
Such was the case with Carlos Qué Pasa, the newest of Carlos’ restaurants, which opened in early 2019. As with all his restaurants, Carlos hopes his food connects not only to his roots, but also to each customer. Thus, he serves Mexican food that is authentic but still accessible for American taste-buds. To this end, he has also adapted his menu to accommodate everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions.
Many of his customers are travelers who find his restaurants through glowing online reviews, but within Toledo, Carlos faces some trouble in getting the word out about this restaurant. The future of his business, like many businesses in Toledo, can seem shaky at times, but Carlos remains focused.
“I make my decisions corto tiempo—short-term—so right now the future in my mind is totally different from now in comparison to two years ago, to be honest. Why? Because it’s changing everything too fast. Right now I feel very, very, very tied to Toledo,” he said. “Probably my next step is to focus on [the] new location Qué Pasa, [and] wait one or two years to see… qué pasa [what happens].”
No matter what is next for Carlos and his restaurants, he continues to serve dishes that merge the cultures and flavors of Mexico and the United States. Take a look at one of the most popular dishes at his restaurants: tacos al pastor, which is one of Carlos’ favorites simply because—“Soy mexicano”—he is Mexican. Listen to Carlos describe how to make the dish (and read the translation below)!
La mejor comida que a mi me gusta en mi restaurante son dos: tacos al pastor y tacos de carne asada. Why? Because soy Mexicano. El taco al pastor es la receta más significativa de mi restaurante porque es una receta familiar. Es una receta que me enseñó mi papá y mi mamá y es una receta que solamente nosotros tenemos. Tú puedes encontrarlo online modificaciones pero la gente me llama, “¿Porque no me sale mis tacos como ti?” Porque es una receta familiar.
Okay el taco al pastor está hecho hace de puerco o de pollo. A mi me gusta puerco. Okay se compré el puerco. El puerco lo hacemos steaks y lo ponemos sal de mar y se guarda. Aparte, vamos hacer un mole, que es como una salsa con chile guajillo, chile ancho, y chile morita. Son chiles secos que no son picantes. Que son para la sabor y color.
Con estos chiles, hacemos una salsa pesada. Cuando la salsa está hecha, cada bistec de cerdo, la embarramos con la salsa como si fuera un barbecue. Entonces cada bistec, cada bistec cada bistec. Y eso se tapa y al refrigerador veinticuatro horas. Se va a la grille a la plancha. Cuando está cocinar a la carne, se pone en la tortilla- no se rompe es mi, my own tortilla, es very strong, una sola tortilla. Fresh cilantro, fresh onions, lime juice and a hot tomatillo salsa. Mmm, delicious. That is my favorite.
I have two favorite foods from my restaurant: tacos al pastor (shepherd-style tacos) and tacos de carne asada (grilled meat tacos). Why? Because I am Mexican. Taco al pastor is my restaurant’s most significant recipe because it is a family recipe. It’s a recipe that my mom and dad taught me, and it’s a recipe that only we have. You can find online modifications [to the recipe], but people always ask me, “Why don’t my tacos come out like yours?” Because it’s a family recipe.
Okay, tacos al pastor are made using pork or chicken. I like pork. Okay, so I buy the pork. We make steaks from the pork and put sea salt on them and then let it sit. Separately, we make a “mole”, which is like salsa with peppers (guajillo, ancho and morita peppers). They are dried peppers that are not hot. We use them for flavor and color.
With these peppers we make a heavy sauce. And when I’m not going by the recipe, when the sauce is ready, I rub the sauce into each steak like it’s a barbecue. Then the next steak and the next and the next. And then I cover the steaks and put them in the refrigerator for 24 hours. When the meat is cooked, we put it in the tortilla. The tortillas don’t break because they are my homemade tortillas and are very strong, so we only use one. Then, fresh cilantro, fresh onions, lime juice and a hot tomatillo salsa. Mmm, delicious. That is my favorite.