Anthony’s Brick Oven Pizza has been re-christened Anthony’s Mexican Restaurant. At Pacific Spice, the Oxford Asian place, a banner announces “Jasmine Chinese Cuisine Coming Soon.” On South Quintard, there’s Zen Hibachi, formerly known as Angus Steak House, and before that, the Fried Green Tomato.
But in this game, every time the music stops, there’s a chance a cook or waitress can get their turn in the boss’s chair.
That’s how it worked for Jose Jandres, owner of El Patron on McClellan Boulevard.
Jandres worked in restaurants in New York for 16 years, much of that time as a cook. He wanted to start a restaurant of his own, but in New York, that’s an expensive proposition. So he moved South, where he had relatives already in the business, and where just about everything costs less.
Two months ago, Jandres took over the Acapulco, a well-known Mexican sit-down place in the Lenlock Shopping Center. Two weeks ago, he closed the restaurant — not because business was bad, he said, but because of complications with his lease.
Jandres moved up the road to an empty building that had once housed Frontera, another Mexican place. (Frontera Bar & Grill, a restaurant in Oxford with a similar name, is still up and running.)
Jandres says he’s brought many of Acapulco’s local customers with him, even though he’s changed the name to El Patron, Spanish for “the boss.”
He said it’s a nickname he picked up while running a small auto-repair place in New York.
“Once I got two or three employees, they started calling me patron,” he said.
Like the tea in Atlanta
Down in Oxford, Nikky Chen is putting the finishing touches on her menu.
Chen is now in charge of the restaurant formerly known as Pacific Spice. A mostly-Thai restaurant on Snow Street, Pacific Spice was opened last year by a family of Atlanta restaurateurs who saw a niche for sushi and pad thai in Oxford. It had a local following, but business wasn’t strong enough to keep the owners from selling to Denny Chen, Nikky’s husband.
“I think they made a profit,” Nikky Chen said of the former owners’ day-to-day returns. “But I don’t think it was as much as they wanted.”
The Chens plan to relaunch the restaurant, under the name Jasmine, in February. On Friday, Chen had a draft of the new menu, which is mostly Cantonese food, with some Szechuan for people who like hot stuff, and a little Thai for fans of the old place. She can describe every dish for you, down to the texture of the noodles.
“I like a balance,” she said. “Something spicy, something cool. Something crispy, something smooth.”
One reason she’s so good at describing the food is that she used to be a server here, explaining Thai dishes to the uninitiated.
She’s pretty sure she can draw more customers than Pacific Spice did.
“We’re going to work on consistency,” she said. “The cooks and the owners need to work together better.”
Chen said customers at the old place used to complain that the same dish never tasted the same way twice. And some items didn’t have the taste customers had experienced at other Asian food places.
“The Thai tea didn’t taste like the tea in Atlanta,” she said.
Meanwhile, on Noble Street, there’s a red-and-white banner over the sign at the former Anthony’s Brick Oven Pizza.
It’s now Anthony’s Mexican Restaurant.
But the owner’s name isn’t Anthony. It’s Alma.
Alma Machado is an old hand at the restaurant business. She owned the Acapulco for seven years before Jose Jandres bought it. And she owned the Mariachi, the Mexican place that was in Nikky Chen’s building before Pacific Spice.
Machado said she wishes the other restaurateurs well — but she sounds pretty confident that her experience gives her an edge over the newbies.
“You really have to do your homework to be in the restaurant business,” she said. “It’s like a baby. You have to be there all the time, you have to pamper it, if you want it to grow up healthy.”
Machado said the previous owner of Anthony’s was new to the business, and he made one big mistake.
“Damn Yankees already has pizza,” she said. “I can get a sandwich at the Peerless. Downtown needed something different.”
Something old, something new is Machado’s approach. She advertises as a Tex-Mex restaurant, a familiar theme, but she says her dishes have a Salvadoran twist. The menu is new, but she kept “Anthony’s” name, and so far she’s kept the brick-oven logo, which is replicated in pricey-looking tile over the counter. Jose Jandres may have claimed the Acapulco’s old customers, but Machado claims to have the old restaurant’s signature margarita.
“All you need is one, and you’re good,” she said.
A survivor’s end
Machado claims that if she could make the Acapulco last for so long, she can make her Noble Street business a success.
And it’s true, the old Acapulco was a survivor. When the Lenlock eatery was launched more than 20 years ago, the Lenlock Shopping Center was anchored on one end by an entrance to Fort McClellan and on the other by Carmike Cinemas. At lunch, the booths were full of shaved heads and woodland camouflage. At night, couples leaned over the tables before or after a movie.
That was some time ago.
“We’ve had a lot of vacancies since Fort McClellan closed,” said Clark Ullom, the Atlanta investor who has owned the shopping center for more than 20 years.
But despite it all, the Acapulco seemed to plow through. Theirs was one of the few signs in the shopping center that didn’t change, as other storefronts went empty, or changed hands.
So what happened in the past few months? Machado said she sold the business, in part, because Los Arcos opened nearby, cutting into her income.
The other part is a bit stickier. Machado and Jandres both say Ullom wasn’t keeping up the property the way he should. Ullom says he was owed thousands in back rent. Machado says she sometimes withheld rent to force Ullom to make repairs, though Ullom says he’s fixed everything he’s required to. And Jandres says he walked into the middle of the whole thing, not understanding that Alabama lease law is different than the law in New York.
All parties seem happy not to be embroiled in the matter any more.
But even Machado’s seven-year tenure at Acapulco seems impressive in a time when restaurant names change as often as autumn foliage.
Machado said there’s one thing every restaurant needs to stay in business that long.
“The food has got to be good,” she said. “If it’s good, they’ll come back.”