Many years ago, in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, the land was dotted with farms growing the blue agave plant—the plant crucial for making tequila. There were inns scattered among the farms, inns that had stables, restaurants, bars, and were a place where the workers from the farms would come together, a place where they could be comfortable together. That comfort—that togetherness—was exactly what the Ruiz’s were aiming for when they opened El Meson Restaurante Mexicano over twenty years ago at Hamilton Place.
Raul Ruiz, Jr., one of the managers of the local family restaurant, had worked in the restaurant business for 25 years, managing restaurants for a company that owned Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and Sizzler Steakhouses. Ruiz had a chance after all those years to buy a franchise of one of the restaurants he had managed, but at the last minute the deal fell through. By this time, Ruiz had gotten excited about becoming a restaurant owner. Enter Pedro, Ruiz’s former business partner. At this time, Ruiz and his family were living in California. Pedro was in Atlanta. Pedro had recipes; Ruiz had restaurant experience. It was decided that once they found the perfect place, they would open a restaurant. After a trip to Chattanooga, Ruiz got the call: “I think we found it.” He packed up his wife and five sons and moved from California to Chattanooga and El Meson was born. Today, half the recipes are still Pedro’s, and the other half belong to the Ruiz family.
Says Ruiz, “[These recipes] originate in Jalisco state and honestly, truthfully, some of these recipes are straight from my Grandma. The mole, the tortillas—that’s straight out of my Grandma’s book.” Not only are the recipes authentic, the entire atmosphere radiates Mexico. Ruiz says, “I’ve been in other Mexican restaurants. Some of them, you feel like you’re going into a bar—it looks like it’s a bar restaurant. Others, you go in and you’re like, ’Oh, this is really fancy’. With us it’s not the fanciness; with us you get the authentic experience.”
Not only do you find authentic family recipes at El Meson Restaurate Mexicano, you find a family business. Ruiz opened the restaurant when his sons were children, and has since added a daughter. Four of Ruiz’s sons, Raul, Jr., Edgar, Tony, and Alberto manage El Meson. “My dad put us through college,” says Raul, Jr. “All of us, we all graduated from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Go Vols.” Ruiz told his sons he would put them through school, pay for their college, and then—it was their choice. If they chose to work in the field they graduated in, that was fine, but if they chose to come back to the family business, he expected them to be one hundred percent committed. Of his five sons, only one, Oscar, a law student, has chosen to pursue something outside the restaurant business. Ruiz’s daughter, Julia, at 11, has yet to face that decision. Once his sons made their decisions to come back to El Meson, Ruiz sent each of them to train with their uncle in Nevada. They worked in restaurants, stores, apartment complexes. “You learn so much,” says Raul, Jr. “You learn teamwork. You learn how to hire. You learn how to train people.”
The training and education never ends for the Ruiz sons. Each year, they are sent to Mexico for food shows. It’s there they pick up new recipes to try at the Sunday brunch buffet at El Meson. Each Sunday, one of the sons spends time with diners at the buffet garnering information on what dishes are the favorites and should be added to the menu. Perhaps it is this commitment to pleasing the palate of Chattanoogan’s that has allowed the Ruizes to open a second El Meson Restaurante Mexicano in Hixson, Tennessee. The new restaurant is at 248 Northgate Park, in the Northgate Mall area and seats approximately 250 people. It too, hearkens back to the comfortable atmosphere and family cooking that have made the original such a favorite.
Excerpts from “Family behind El Meson opening 2nd restaurant to please Hixson customers,” by Anne Braly, appearing inChattanooga Times Free Press.
© Chattanooga Times Free Press. Staff Photo by Dan Henry. Used with permission.