We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
Thirty years ago, when David Suro-Piñera arrived in Philadelphia, there were very few other Mexicans in the city. Today, Philly has a thriving Mexican population, one of the largest of which is the enclave of Puebla natives living in South Philly. In that community, the biggest employer is the hospitality industry — Philly’s booming restaurant scene relies on Mexican labor for everything from kitchen prep to dishwashing, a relationship that got its start when a lost immigrant walked into Suro-Piñera’s Tequilas Restaurant in search of directions to NYC.
Suro-Piñera opened Tequilas just a year after arriving here as an inexperienced 23-year-old, a feat possible thanks to a combination of his own determination and others’ kindness. His goal from the beginning was to introduce people to authentic Mexican culture through food and spirits. It’s a mission he continues, not only through his 29-year-old restaurant (which in 2001 moved from its original 15th and Locust location into the handsome Duane-Dulles House a block away), but also through his Siembra Azul tequila brand and its associated nonprofit foundation.
Seated at the corner of the bar that anchors his white-tablecloth dining room, Suro-Piñera reminisced about the difficulties he had securing his first chef, the trouble they had sourcing the ingredients once he was here — "cilantro? what’s that?" — and how he hired the city’s first Poblano restaurant worker. He also discussed his love for tequila, which he calls “more complex than cognac,” his new mescal brand and the satirical mural in his restaurant’s lobby (it’s not the Day of the Dead).
Why did you come to Philadelphia?
My wife was pregnant, so we came here to be near her family. It was supposed to be a temporary move; the idea was to go back. It’s a good thing we didn’t.
What were you doing before you moved here?
I had a pretty decent job, I was working in Cancun at the Carlos’n Charlie’s chain. It was very popular. So then, when I came to Philadelphia, in 1985, I started working at El Metate. It was the only Mexican restaurant in the city, where Misconduct Tavern is now [1511 Locust St.]. It was owned by a very nice guy named Harry Shapiro. He’d opened it around four years earlier, I think.
How did you go from working for someone else to opening your own place?
I was homesick for anyone else who spoke Spanish, so my mother-in-law introduced me to a couple from Puerto Rico. They asked me, “What do you want to do?” I told them I was in the restaurant industry, that I would probably open a restaurant. They said, “Wow, let us introduce you to a group of people in North Philly." It was the Hunting Park Community Development Corporation (HPCDC); they still operate. “It’s an organization that helps minorities,” they said. I said, “Minorities, what the hell is that?” I was like, “Hey, I’m taller than you...” I had no clue what “minority” meant.
So you went to meet the Hunting Park Development folks?
Yes, I met Danny Rodriguez and Israel Colon and Todd — he was the main guy, the gringo of the bunch. And I presented a business plan, and they loved it. Most of the work they were doing back then was in the barrio, but my project was designed to appeal to downtown Philadelphia. It was an authentic Mexican restaurant. ... There really wasn’t much like it anywhere around here.
So they loved it, and we started work on the project. We found a location, where Il Portico [was most recently, 1519 Walnut St.], and began trying to get financing. But 1986, that was when the economy started to crumble, and the HPCDC was affected, big time. All their federal, state and municipal funding was cut severely, or entirely. So we decided to go to a private bank.
What kind of reception did you get from the bank?
Actually, first we approached the PIDC (Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation). We spent more time sitting in the lobby, flipping through the magazines, than we did in the actual office. We walked in, they took one look at the project, looked at me — I was just a kid, 23 years old — and said, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” I made a U-turn and walked out.
I don’t blame them, but it was interesting because years later I became part of the PIDC board. When they asked me if I was familiar with the organization, I said, sure, 12 years ago I walked through this same door and was denied financial assistance, so yeah, I’m familiar.
But we were very determined - Todd was very determined, without him, none of this would have happened.
So how did you get financing?
One day, my father in law was like, “David, do you really know what you’re doing?” I said, sure. So he said, well, I don’t have the money — he was a cement contractor, an amazing human being — but I can sign for you, if that helps.
So we went to the bank and he signed for us. We got an $86,000 line of credit. When Harry Shapiro saw that this was coming through, he said, “Why don’t you just take over El Metate? You’ve worked here over a year; you know the clientele, it will be easier.”
He was ready to move on?
He was. He moved to New Mexico, where he’s a very successful restaurateur, actually. In Santa Fe.
So when did you open?
We opened on Sept. 29, 1986. It was a fascinating process, trying to get the concept we wanted to work. I was a real challenge.
It wasn’t the same concept as El Metate?
No. El Metate was more than just tacos, and Harry really tried, but it was Mexican food through the eyes of a nice Jewish guy from Philly. It was not the authenticity I wanted, the only thing I really knew.
Who was your opening chef?
That’s a story in itself. I had invited a chef I knew from Carlos’n Charlies, where I used to work. Jimmy. He had agreed to come, and he was very into it until like two months before opening. I told him, “Jimmy, I really need you here now, we need to start to test things, get ready.” And he was still like, “I don’t know.” So I took a plane to Cancun, and said, “You can’t do this to me, man.” He started crying, saying “I’m sorry, I’m afraid, I don’t want to leave my family.” So I couldn’t force him.
So I had no idea what I was going to do. I called some friends in Cancun, and we went out to lunch at a very nice restaurant called El Campanario. I said, “You guys have to help me find someone to open this restaurant — I’m about to open!” The chef of the restaurant passed by as we were talking, and they said, let’s ask this guy if he knows anyone. I said, “Chef, we’d like a recommendation,” and he was like “I’ll do it!” I said, “Well, I need it right away.” He said, “I’ll give notice right now!”
So I said ok. His name was Jesus Moyao. Jesus was from Acapulco, so he wanted to go there first, and talk to his family. So I gave him money to make that trip. But then, he didn’t have documents... So this guy in Monterey was going to help him come here. He arrived in Monterey like a week later. But then another week went by, two weeks, three weeks, and he wasn’t showing up in Philly.
So I flew out to Monterey and said, “Hey, what’s going on, guys?” Turns out that the guy who was supposed to help him get to Philly, he was a customs agent, and he fell in love with Jesus’ cooking. He was having him cook for the full staff of the customs office! Anyway, don’t ask me how, but a week later he was in Philadelphia.
And he started cooking for you?
Well, we were just doing testing at that time. The main thing was to find the ingredients. We used to go to the market and ask for cilantro, and they’d look at me like, “What?” I’d say, “You know cilantro, coriander?” They’d say, “Let me see if I can get it from New York.” Avocados were a rare thing. And dried chiles? Forget it. It was a real challenge.
I used to go to Kennett Square - there was a little Mexican store there, still there, called El Sombrero. Even they didn’t have what I needed, so I went with them to the food distribution center in Chicago and showed them what we would need on a regular basis. Tomatillo, cactus — probably half the stuff we needed for our kitchen we weren’t able to get easily. So they would get it in Kennett Square, and I’d go down there once a week.
So we found all the stuff we needed except epazote. Epazote is like the main ingredient in southern Mexican food. They put it in everything. And Jesus said, “David, I’m sorry, but without epazote, I cannot do this.” He was very frustrated, like about to go back to Mexico. But then one day we were driving over the South Street Bridge, the old bridge, and he jumped out of the car. I thought, oh my God, he’s going to jump! And I lost sight of him. But he had gone down to the river, and when he came back up, he was holding two pieces of greenery in his hand. He said, “This is epazote!” So yeah, it grows wild, all over Philadelphia. What do you know.
Amazing. So then he could cook?
Yes, he was happy. And he set up a very interesting menu, and we opened. But unfortunately, this guy was not the right guy. He had the right flavors, the right taste, but his attitude was horrible. He had issues with drinking, and he didn’t want to teach any of the guys working with him in the kitchen how to make things. He wouldn’t always show up to work.
So I went to Mexico and put a sign up, and I found a guy named Clemente Gonzales. An amazing guy, chef of a very well-known place in Guadalajara. He said as long as he could bring his family, he would come. So I said sure, and he was here two weeks later. I introduced him to the chef with the horrible attitude, and said, “Jesus, you’re welcome to stay, but this is your new boss.”
And how old were you at this time?
I was 24. They were like 55 or 60. It was just crazy. I was so naive.
Were you busy from the start?
We were too busy! After the Inquirer published a story about us, we had two-hour waits every day. But kitchen staff, cooks, were a big, big issue. So I asked Clemente to recommend someone from Mexico. He ended up getting me the names of chefs of the three top kitchens in Guadalajara, who all wanted to come here. It speaks to how bad the economic conditions for chefs were down in Mexico.
So we had a kitchen that was incredible, even by Mexican standards. Very authentic, focused on bringing authenticity here. Part of our success was because I just didn’t know any better. I remember the very first week we were open, the Marabella brothers and Neil Stein came to eat here. They sat at table three, and as I passed by, working the floor, I heard them say, “There’s no way this restaurant is going to survive. It’s too Mexican for Philadelphia.” And they were probably right, it was too Mexican, but I didn’t care. But, they were out of business like five years later, and here we are.
Can’t argue there.
So, that was the beginning, but there were no Mexican guys to help us on the floor. We had all these great chefs and cooks, but they needed dishwashers. It was a real challenge to find people. Until, it was the mid-’90s, and this guy walked into the restaurant. He came in because he saw on the canopy that it said “Cocina Mexicana.” He said, “You know how to get to New York?” I asked him, “Sure. Are you driving?” He said no, so I asked him how he got here. He said, “The coyote just dropped me off.” “And?” “Well, I have cousins in New York, and I want to work here. I said, “You want to stay here?” and he said sure, so he stayed. He was the first Mexican from Puebla, out of the thousands there are now....
This whole beautiful restaurant renaissance, the Mexican community was a very important part of it. Without this labor, it would have been impossible for the industry to develop to the point where we are right now. All these amazing companies like the Garces Group, the Starr Organization, everyone from McDonald’s to the finest dining room in the city has a lot to thank this community for. They are the hardest working people in the industry.
Some of you have foundations to help them?
Yes. There’s an organization called Puentes de Salud, run by Dr. Steve Larson, that provides very accessible medical and educational help, and both my foundation — the Siembra Azul Foundation — and Jose Garces’ foundation are engaged with that. It’s a great thing. We’d like to see more engagement from other restaurateurs to support this clinic, because it provides services the community can’t get anywhere else.
In 2001, you moved Tequilas to its current home [at 16th and Locust]. Why did you relocate?
I wanted to own the real estate. We were renting, before. So we bought this building and it was the best move I ever made, really.
The space is bigger?
Yes, before we had 86 seats, and now we have around 180, and 50 more in the summer when we have seats on the sidewalk. It’s also easier to operate; the dining room works very well for what we want to do.
What is the mural in your lobby about?
Well, when we were in the other place, it was very humble, then we inherited this palace! The chandelier is an original Baccarat. The space had been a restaurant for a while before us — it was Magnolia Cafe — but prior to that it was the home of William Duane. He was secretary of the Treasury of the United States (he even ran for president once), and the chandelier was given to him by Napoleon’s brother, who lived in Philadelphia back in the 1860s.
So, when we came here, we changed the name to Los Catrines Restaurant and Tequilas bar. To separate the bar part from the restaurant. So, this mural, these characters are the Catrines. A lot of people think it’s Day of the Dead, but it’s not. The characters were created by Jose Guadalupe Posada, an artist at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. He was the mentor of Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfarfo Siqueiros, the three famous 20th-century muralists of Mexico. They were sons of the revolution.
So, Posada’s characters were created as a way of satirizing the government. Political satire. It was these wealthy, arrogant, soulless people who were controlling Mexico. Dressed up skeletons. Here, we were trying to make fun of ourselves, in this fancy building. One wall depicts Salinas, the former President of Mexico, signing NAFTA with Daddy Bush, and the poor people of Mexico getting thrown to the vultures of capitalism. Then there’s another wall with a church, showing St. Michael stepping on the throat of a feathered snake, which is a pre-Columbian God. Basically, showing how Catholocism squashed the pre-Columbian religions.
Who painted the mural?
It was actually Clemente Orozco’s grandson! His name is also Clemente Orozco. We went to school together.
Who is your chef now?
Now it’s El Nino — that’s what we call him. Claudio Soto. He’s been working here a long time. We have gone through very few changes in the kitchen. Previously the chef was Carlos Molina, who was with us for 12 or 13 years. Now he has his own restaurant — Las Bugambilias [on South Street]. It’s beautiful. I’m very proud of him.
Was it always a white-tablecloth spot?
Yes, from day one.
I’ve always thought of the food here as French-influenced. Is it?
Well, Mexican food has French influences. The base tomato sauce for enchiladas rojas, for chiles rellenos, that’s a French sauce. Contemporary Mexican cuisine really is a mix of many cultures — mestizaje. If you analyze the evolution of Mexican food, you start with the pre-Columbian civilizations. They were very advanced, culinarily speaking, because they were in a region that is very rich with everything — spices, vegetables, animals. So there was already a very interesting cuisine, and when Europeans arrived, they made it even more interesting.
Take mole poblano, one of the iconic dishes of Mexican cuisine. It’s a transformation of a pre-Columbian sauce called molli, which was a mix of chiles. But when the Spaniards arrived, it was too spicy for them, so they added chocolate and other sweet ingredients, and it evolved into mole.
Then, you had Porfirio Diaz, who was the dictator from the late 1800s through 1910. He had an incredible admiration for French cuisine, and French culture in general. If you go to some of the neighborhoods in Mexico City from that ear, you feel like you’re in Paris. So Porfirio brought tons of chefs over from France, and it started to change the cuisine. Mexican food is a true global cuisine. Few people realized that authentic Mexican food is a very ambiguous thing, very subjective.
It’s one of the reasons I was so upset when I first saw Mexican food in the United States. It was reduced to a very greasy, cheesy...something. We would never eat that in Mexico. Thank God those preconceptions didn’t really exist yet in the Northeast back in the 1980s. I’m 100 percent sure that if I had opened a restaurant in Houston or Dallas, it would never have survived. Because of the Tex-Mex.
Do you have people who come to your restaurant looking for Tex-Mex?
We have a lot of customers who walk in, look at the menu, the walk away. We’ll say, “Is something wrong?” They’ll say, “Well, we're looking for Mexican food. Where are the burritos? Where’s the taco salad? Where are the chimichangas?” We have people from Texas who walk in and say, “Well, this better be good, because we’re from Texas!” Well, we’re from Mexico.
There are quite a few Mexican restaurants in Philadelphia now.
It became very trendy. Thank God visionaries like Garces and Starr decided to open these Mexican restaurants in a respectful way, culinarily speaking. You know, Garces was opening chef at El Vez, and he did his homework. Went to Mexico, learning the real deal. I love to go out and eat Mexican food in Philadelphia. From the very homey places in South Philly to El Vez, El Rey, Distrito, Bugambilias, Paloma. We’re really serious in Philadelphia when it comes to Mexican food. It’s very well-executed, very respectful. The concept of authenticity is highly respected by chefs in Philadelphia, and that’s beautiful.
You have a brand of tequila called Siembra Azul. Why did you decide to start a liquor company?
Food-wise, we have always wanted to present what Mexico is all about, but also in spirits — what’s the name of the restaurant? I found it very disturbing to see how people in the U.S. thought about tequila. People were offended if I offered it to them. But, that’s understandable, because back then, in the ‘80s, tequilas here were awful. They were only mixto tequilas, and we only had access to like five kinds. I used to drink scotch during those years.
In the mid 90s, the 100 percent agave tequilas started to become available here. We just went bananas at the restaurant. We started to bring in whatever was available. At one point, we went up to 150 tequilas. But still, a lot of people didn’t get it.
So I said, you know, I’m going to start to produce tequila. More than food, that was my area of expertise. I studied tequilas from the anthropological, historical, sociological and archaeological perspectives. So I wanted to create a project to help us elevate the knowledge of consumers, so they can recognize what good tequila is all about. The idea was to penetrate into bars, and get in front of bartenders, who are the educators, and give them a real appreciation for tequila. So we created Siembra Azul. Our slogan is “The future of tradition.” That was in 2004.
And you also have the Siembra Azul Foundation.
Yes, we started to funnel money to the foundation. Money for local health education, and ESL for kids of immigrants, but also for academic research. That part has been pretty amazing. We created an organization called the Tequila Interchange Project. We’ve been able to kill evil legislation, and the group has become very vocal in Mexico. We also take American bartender on trips to Mexico, but not in a typical way. When the big companies take these guys, they show them what’s like the Disneyland of tequila. I said, let’s do this without the marketing distractions. Then when they come back, they can educate consumers on the real thing.
You just introduced a new label called Siembra Valles?
Yes. Siembra Azul is highlands tequila, and Siembra Valles — “valley” —is lowlands tequila. Neither one is better than the other, it’s all about terroir. Tequila and mezcal have some of the most amazing terroirs in the world of spirits. I like to argue with cognac producers, or calvados producers, or single malt scotch producers, that tequila terroir is way more complex than any of those spirits. There have been some interesting arguments. Just imagine, tequila more complex than cognac?
I say yes. Let’s go scientifically, historically, culturally and technically. For grains and grapes, it takes one year, maybe two, to reach the point of maturity where you can process them into liquor. In the case of tequila, it’s at least six to 12 years, during which time the raw plant is absorbing all the characteristics of the terroir.
Then, there’s a link between man and agave that goes back at least 11,000 years. We’re in the middle of research with Dr. Pat McGovern at Penn; we bring samples back from Mexico of vessels we suspect were used for distillation. So far he’s dated some at 3,500 years old. Crazy stuff. So, terroir, if you’re talking about the human aspect, for tequila and mezcal it can go back even before France existed as a country.
We’re about to introduce a mezcal, too. It’s called Siembra Metl. “Metl” is the word for the agave plant. Siembra, the umbrella brand, that word means “to sow,” like when you throw a seed and let it grow.
You’ve got your hands full.
Thank God the restaurant and spirits projects walk hand in hand. So it’s not like they’re two entirely separate concepts. It’s Mexico culinarily speaking, it’s Mexico through spirits. We’re just trying to express, “What is Mexico really about?”
1602 Locust St., 215-546-0181
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday; 5 to 10 p.m, Sunday.