El Tapatio gets a facelift

WILLMAR -- Each piece of furniture in the remodeled El Tapatio restaurant in Willmar is a vibrant piece of folk art hand crafted in Mexico. After six years at the location on South First Street, co-owner Juan Valencia decided it was time to fix u...

Juan Valencia the owner of the El Tapatio restaurant in Willmar talks about the changes which had been made during the recent remodeling which was done at the business. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Each piece of furniture in the remodeled El Tapatio restaurant in Willmar is a vibrant piece of folk art hand crafted in Mexico.

After six years at the location on South First Street, co-owner Juan Valencia decided it was time to fix up the place.

Valencia and his family closed the restaurant for a month to finish a major remodeling project. "We decided, let's do something really nice for the people," he said.

The result was unveiled a few weeks ago with tile floors, fresh paint, a new bar and the new furniture. Big-screen TVs have been popular on weekends, particularly for football games, he said. "I always went for the Vikings, even in Georgia."

Valencia, who owns the restaurant with his brother-in-law, Sergio Aguirre, is particularly pleased with the furniture, which he ordered from Guadalajara.


Each table, chair and booth seat is made by hand, and each is different, he said.

Each booth has its own theme, Valencia said, and each table is different.

They have a strong shiny finish that will protect the bright colors for years, he said.

The furniture has a variety of images -- parrots, lilies, eagles, villages, churches, cowboys. Many reflect rural settings.

"Tapatio" means country people, and Valencia said he thought it was an appropriate name in an agricultural area like Willmar. "I'm from the country, too."

Valencia, 34, pointed to a booth that showed a scene of a donkey with a load of wood on its back, walking toward a small village. "When I was little, I saw that," he said. People would gather firewood and bundle it on a donkey's back to sell it in town, he said.

When the restaurant reopened after the remodeling, it was very busy. "We're really thankful for that," he said. Many customers asked why he was closed for so long, with some saying it seemed like several months.

"It was only a month," he said with a smile, but he appreciated knowing that they missed his food. "I really appreciate the customers."


Valencia grew up in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, where his father taught him how to cook.

"He always taught us, sell what you eat," he said. "You make sure the food is good, people will come." He said he still cooks the food in the restaurant the way his father taught him.

The Mexican restaurant business is part of Valencia's family. He is in business with his brother-in-law and with several brothers. Each runs one of the family restaurants. Aguirre runs a restaurant in South Dakota. Valencia's brothers operate restaurants in Benson, Alexandria and the Twin Cities. They make sure that each restaurant has a family member in charge "so we can make sure the food is good."

Valencia has worked in the restaurant business for a long time. He worked for a company in Atlanta, Ga., for 10 years, designing and opening restaurants. For a time, he opened two restaurants a year but never stayed at one for very long.

"I always wanted to own my own restaurant," he said, and he had talked with his brother-in-law about it. He had been saving money to make the dream come true.

About six and a half years ago, he was visiting relatives in South Dakota and drove from Aberdeen, S.D., to the Twin Cities on Highway 12.

In Willmar, "I didn't see any Mexican restaurants" on Highway 12, so he drove around town looking for one. He found a closed Mexican restaurant and was told the previous owners had lost their liquor license and closed.

It took about six months to negotiate a rental deal for the building and to obtain the permits and licenses he needed to open El Tapatio.


Valencia and his wife, Miela, moved to Willmar with their two children, and they've since had a third child.

The first year was difficult, he said, and people worried him with stories of all the different restaurants that had failed in that location. But he made some improvements, including developing a patio outside the bar area, and business picked up. After the first year, he decided El Tapatio would ultimately be a success.

Valencia said they weren't prepared at first for how cold it got in the winter, but the family has adapted in many ways. "My kids love it here," he said.

Valencia said he handles the cold like a native Minnesotan now, even running outside in the winter without a jacket on. When the family spent six months in Mexico a couple years ago, he said, "I was sweating all day."

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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