San Luis: One of Greensboro’s First Authentic Mexican Restaurants Still Going Strong
“Oh my God, it has a face!” said my date when the waiter set my gape-mouthed mojarra frita on our table at San Luis 1 on Gate City Boulevard. This was on a Friday evening way back when it was just San Luis on West Lee Street. All I really needed to say was that fish tastes better cooked with the head on, as that’s where 60 percent of the fat is and that’s why the flaky white meat under the crisp skin of this whole fried tilapia was so moist and juicy. But being young(er) and stupid(er), I went full force faux-Bourdain, lecturing her on how I spent my childhood butchering chickens and gutting catfish and was morally superior to people who didn’t like their food to have bones or skin, much less heads. Unsurprisingly, there was no second date. She probably should have dumped her pina colada on my head.
I’m a lot older and slightly less stupid now, but I still love San Luis 1. It was the place in Greensboro that introduced me to Mexican seafood, back when the newest waves of immigration were making the Americanized Tex-Mex of Tijuana Fats and Chi-Chi’s as outdated as those jello salad monstrosities people ate in the 1950s. It was one of the first sit-down restaurants in Greensboro where one could get authentic “Mex-Mex” food. And it had, and still has, the best raw oysters in town.
Seriously, big creamy glistening oysters that taste of the breeze off the breaking foam on the first day of autumn at the beach. Served with limes and oranges and a variety of hot sauces, although I prefer just a dash of black pepper and a quick shake of salt. Fancy oyster and clam bars have come and gone, many of them on Elm and Greene streets, but their mollusks have never been this mouth-watering.
Enedina Leon, who owns Greensboro’s San Luis I and II and Casa Vallarta and High Point’s San Luis III with her husband Armando Flores and his brother Jose, remembers the old days. She and her family lived them.
“Back then, all the Mexican food in Greensboro was made by people who lived near the border. It was very different, and more like Tex-Mex, more like what you get at Chipotle now. Burritos and tacos and enchiladas. The most authentic things were the tamales.”
Like many of the Latin-American immigrants who changed local cuisine in the late 90s and early aughts, Enedina was from a Pacific coastal region far from the US Border, specifically the port city Acapulco in the state of Guerrero. They got jobs with the local Mexico restaurant chain, at both the still-existing Market Street location and the now defunct one at the intersection of Battleground and Hill Street. “We worked for them for six years. Back then, that was the most authentic food, much more so than Chi-Chi’s and Tijuana Fats.
Working there, me and my husband noticed that the older Mexican customers were always asking about seafood; fish, shrimp, oysters, even octopus. And Armando and I were missing it, too. And not just seafood, but things like tortas (Mexican sandwiches). Or steak, real Mexican steak. And you couldn’t get it here. We remembered the food we’d eaten back in Acapulco, and we missed it, too.”
Enedina and Armando worked at Mexico for six years. Then the woman who owned the site of the current San Luis I decided she wanted to sell her place at 1503 W. Lee Street (now Gate City Boulevard). “She pretty much ran this place by herself, and it was very hard for her. Plus, she had a food truck, and not only was that easier, but it made her more money. So she decided to sell.”
Friends and relatives cautioned Enedina and Armando against buying. “They said ‘don’t you do it!’, that we’d go bankrupt and lose our savings.” But buy it they did in 2000. The first two years were hard. “We were working here 7 am to 2 am, every day of the year. We would only be home to sleep and shower. Now we have more time off, because we have more staff than we used to, but back then, nada. That’s why we didn’t have any kids until we’d been in business for two years. There was no time to make children.”
Instead, they concentrated on making food. “Armando and his brother remembered what we’d eaten back in Acapulco, and we made a big notebook of recipes and took it to Kinko’s and copied it. Everything about running the restaurant, we learned at Mexico, but the cooking, it was all stuff from back home. We also made so many flyers, and would put them up all over after we closed. So when we weren’t here, or sleeping, or showering, or putting up flyers, we were at Kinko’s.”
The hard work – and the good, authentic food – paid off. In 2006, they opened San Luis II at 4207 Gate City Boulevard (I’ve never eaten there, but my editor swears by it) and Casa Vallarta at 2195 Battleground. In 2012, San Luis III opened at 144 Westchester Drive in High Point. Armando runs San Luis II and his brother Jose runs San Luis 3. “And at Casa Vallarta, I have two brothers, and Armando has one sister who helps there. So it’s a family affair.”
And her family has grown, as eventually there was time for that. Enedina has a 14 year old son, Omar, and 12 year old twins, Karen and Elena. But she still spends much of her time at the place she’s work so hard to make the success it is.
Which, ¡Ay no!, may be moving soon. But not far, reassures Enedina. “We want to stay around here. We’ve really benefited from the students, and the people who’ve been doing the construction, and the people who work downtown and come here for lunch and then come back with their families on weekend nights, like that birthday party over there. We don’t want to go far. But we want to own our place, and our landlord Kosmos, he lives in Greece and doesn’t want to sell, he just wants to keep collecting rent.”
Enedina wants to make sure everyone knows she’s not just proud of her seafood, such as the whole fried fish and the oysters and the excellent ceviche tostada and campechana (traditional seafood cocktail with shrimp, oysters, and octopus) and the various shrimp dishes and the delicious jumbo soup with shrimp, clams, fish, octopus and crab legs and the huge mixed platter. “Lots of people tell us we have the best steak in town We’re very proud of our beef. You couldn’t get beef like that in a Mexican restaurant when we came here.”
But when I ask her what’s the one thing she would add if she could just shake a magic wand and add something to the menu, her eyes light up. “Lobster!”
Wanna go? San Luis is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Their menu can be viewed at www.sanluisrestaurant.com.