The Norman Transcript

June 9, 2008

Plato caliente


Transcript Staff Writer

Opening a Mexican restaurant in Norman -- or anywhere for that matter -- is a risky proposition at best. The city has embraced some, but just as many have seen their doors closed because of lack of business.

Failure rates for restaurants, depending on which "expert" you consult, can range from 40 percent to nearly 95. Customers can be fickle -- forget to fill their Coke up or bring them a straw one time and you may never see them again.

And the list goes on.

Nobody knows this better than the owners of Mamaveca -- open since December 2007 -- who report their business is slowly gaining steam despite a questionable location and the recent opening of well-known local franchise Ted's Caf? Escondido just across Interstate 35.

William Chunga, a Peruvian who's been grinding away in Oklahoma City's Mexican food restaurant industry for the past 20 years, owns Mamaveca along with his wife. Juan Castro, also Peruvian and a longtime restaurateur in the Oklahoma City area, is a minority owner of the eatery.

"We've put together a recipe that nobody around here has come up with yet," Chunga said. "We have a quality of food that Norman hasn't seen yet."

Chunga and Castro said all tamales, tortillas and salsa are homemade daily, something not all Mexican restaurants do every day.

"People love our salsa because it's not too spicy, but very tasty. It's fresh. Everybody can eat it," Chunga said.

"And if the customer wants spicy, we have a green sauce to take care of them."

Mamaveca has the usual fare: Tacos de la casa, chile verde, fajitas, chips and salsa, etc. But it's the changes coming to the restaurant the owners are hoping will continue the business's growth.

Castro said one of the restaurant's long-term goals is to make Mamaveca into a "house of margaritas, not just a place for good food." The owners said they're in the process of securing a liquor license.

"People have been drinking the same two or three margaritas for the past 40, 50 years," Castro said. "We're planning on bringing out around 20 kinds of margaritas in the next 30 days."

Besides the expanded margarita selection, Mamaveca also plans to add more Peruvian dishes to the menu to further distinguish themselves from the numerous competitors around the city, Chunga said.

Chunga bought the restaurant from the former owner of Temezcal, which occupied the same location just north of Lowe's hardware store, for $100,000. Before that it was Charlie's Chicken. The location is kind of an oddity, basically sandwiched between Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and a few other businesses that dwarf the restaurant both in size and revenue.

"In the beginning, it was hard to attract customers to let them know we were here. We know it's not the best location, but our best advertising is word of mouth," Chunga said.

"We are confident in our service and our food. We will be one of the ones to survive."

Apparently, the word is out about Mamaveca's food and service.

Retired postal worker Phil Fink said he and his wife eat at Mamaveca at least a couple of times per week, adding that many of the couple's friends are regular customers after they were told about the restaurant by the Finks.

"I've eaten at every Mexican restaurant in Norman and I found Mamaveca to be the best, even better than Tarahumara's," Fink said. "And it's a lot better than Ted's."

But it's not so much the food, although Fink said it's "excellent" and his favorite in the city.

"The service there is the best thing about the place," he said.

"One guy might bring this, another guy might bring you another thing, but they all take care of you. You never run out of anything, which is rare."

It's customers like the Finks that make all the hard work and long days worth it, Chunga said.

"The best part is when a guest comes up and tells you: 'Wow, this food is good.' 'Wow, this service was good,'" he said. "It makes you keep going."

The Chungas and Castro came to the OKC area to work for El Chico two decades ago, noting that many of the Mexican restaurants around Norman are run by former employees of the Dallas-based franchise.

"A lot of us who used to work for them have gone out and been successful on our own," Chunga said.

Working for a corporation -- especially a franchise restaurant -- is hard work, a lesson learned by both men.

Running the show on your own is even more difficult, Castro said.

"Of course, the hardest part of this business is being away from your family a lot. That is very hard on us," he said. "But when you enjoy what you do, it makes it a little easier to be away."

Future plans for Mamaveca are modest, which is probably a smart move in the hit-or-miss restaurant business.

"Success happens little by little, not everything comes fast for us in this business," Chunga said. "We want to expand, but we want to get this place going first. We want everyone to know this is a good place to eat, a good place to enjoy the whole experience of eating a meal as well."

As for Fink and his wife, they just hope the restaurant can avoid the same fate as Charlie's Chicken and Temezcal.

"Norman's got a huge number of restaurants," Fink said. "But it's got nowhere to eat."