Enrique Román Curiel makes his way around the dining room at his restaurant on a busy Monday at noon. He leads a family to a table, then refills mugs with fragrant café de olla one table over. He then takes an order for machaca with eggs and red chilaquiles before sitting down for our scheduled interview.
“I am involved in a bit of everything here — I make supply purchases, I seat people, I bus plates away, and help my staff provide great service,” he says.
Curiel is the owner of Talavera Azul, a Mexican breakfast hotspot in Chula Vista, a predominantly Mexican-American suburb just south of San Diego and seven miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. He and his family have been in the restaurant business since 1983, when they opened La Leña, the first steakhouse geared toward fine dining in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
But when rival cartels began to challenge the Arellano-Félix organization for control of the lucrative Tijuana trade route in 2006, violence and kidnappings skyrocketed in the city. The Mexican government’s nationwide crackdown on cartel activity, ordered by then-President Felipe Calderón, aggravated the violence, with armed soldiers exchanging fire with criminals in cities already afflicted by turf wars.
Growing fears that he or his family would be targeted by kidnappers or get caught in the crossfire led Curiel to take his family north of the border into San Diego County, to Chula Vista. Many in Tijuana’s upper-class and working-class families, who already took the daily trip into San Diego to work for better wages, were making the same decision.
Curiel says he decided to move to the United States while looking out at the parking lot outside of La Espadaña, a bustling, upscale Mexican restaurant in Tijuana he once managed — he’s still a minority owner. Although Curiel’s family and businesses hadn’t been directly threatened, businesspeople with no known links to the drug trade were becoming targets of organized crime and violence because they could fetch potentially large ransoms.
“Business at the restaurants did not dip despite the violence, and our parking lot was still full of cars,” Curiel says. “If someone wanted to know who the owners or managers of this busy restaurant were, there was nothing stopping them from coming straight to us.”
The capture of local favorite Carnitas Quiroga’s owner by armed men just months before and two failed kidnapping attempts on the youngest brother of the Plascencia family — considered Tijuana’s most prominent restaurateurs — led Curiel to move north.
By the time Curiel made his decision, other successful players in Tijuana’s culinary scene had already moved to Chula Vista, including La Espadaña’s majority holder, the previous owners of the popular Café de la Flor chain, and the Plascencias, among others.
Once settled in Chula Vista, Curiel and his family got down to business and managed to open Talavera Azul on August 1, 2008. Since then, reception for the restaurant has been positive, with workers from nearby offices, shops, and a county courthouse flocking there over nearby fast-food choices. A little marketing also helped.
“After dropping off a lot of flyers at houses around town, people came in and saw we had good food, so word started spreading and we started to develop our clientele,” Curiel says. His his customer base is made up of longtime Chula Vista residents and other Tijuana transplants.
Adapting the menu from one of their Tijuana restaurants to their new location was not difficult, as they were bringing a tried-and-true menu of breakfast classics to a market familiar with the foods but lacking in sit-down Mexican breakfast establishments.
“The dishes are almost the same as La Espadaña, which are homestyle recipes that you can find at pretty much any home in Tijuana,” Curiel says. “We have scrambled eggs, huevos rancheros, chorizo, and chilaquiles.” He adds that they put hamburgers on the opening-day menu in an attempt to win over white American customers, but quickly removed them when no one ordered any. “But we still have croissants and waffles on the menu for Americans, and omelets, which are popular items everywhere.”
Beyond its entrees, as well as the custom of serving fried potato cubes instead of rice as a side, Talavera Azul also exported the cozy, refined feel typical of Tijuana’s classic restaurants. Curiel points to the minimalist dining room accented by blue talavera ceramics, from which the establishment draws its name. Yet here in Southern California, these trappings meet the casual attitude of diners north of the border, resulting in a very San Diego scene.
“I like how we are not a showy place and our customers can feel comfortable here. I like how we have a nice, understated decor, but you can still come in with shorts or sweatpants,” he says. The mood plus the menu draw an eclectic mix of people — making for long wait times that are well worth it for a comforting, Sunday morning-style meal in the middle of the week.
Plenty of Mexican restaurants and San Diego-style taco shops existed in Chula Vista before, says Curiel. But in reflecting on almost 11 years of running his Chula Vista outpost with his family, he believes the influx of business owners from Tijuana fleeing crime from 2006 through 2009 were able to pave the way for other Tijuana-based restaurant owners looking to go north of the international boundary line today. That includes people like José Plascencia (unrelated to the Plascencia family of restauranteurs) of tortas ahogadas institution El Tio Pepe and Priscilla Curiel, owner of San Ysidro’s Tuétano Taqueria (and Enrique Román Curiel’s daughter).
“We all spearheaded bringing Tijuana flavors to this side [of the border],” he says. “It was my family, the people at Achiote in San Ysidro, the Placencia group with Romesco, Tacos el Poblano, and others — are all pioneers, because you didn’t really have the Mexican food we all brought with us.”