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Fresh food, hard work for authentic Mexican cuisine

By Nathan Tsukroff

GORHAM – Giving customers their choice of only fresh ingredients, coupled with hard work, brought authentic Mexican food to Gorham almost a year ago.

Juan Sanchez and his wife, Ilse Fernandez, opened Azul Tequila at 29 School Street in Gorham in February, 2020, just a couple of blocks from the center of town and across the street from the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine.

German Hernandez, the manager of the Azul Tequila restaurant on School Street in Gorham, delivers meals to Ralph Hernandez. The restaurant serves food made only from fresh products and offers a menu of genuine Mexican foods. (Tsukroff photo)

“My husband had always wanted to open kind of like a Chipotle-style restaurant, where people can choose the ingredients. So that was kind of the idea behind this restaurant,” Fernandez said. “We have always worked with fresh ingredients, nothing is frozen. Everything is made fresh!”

They had to lock the front doors in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. And reopened just a few weeks later for personal take-out service or direct delivery by DoorDash. Now, customers can come into the restaurant to pickup an order at the counter, have their order brought to their car at the curb, or get orders delivered to them at home.

Sanchez opened El Rodeo on Western Avenue in South Portland in 2013 with help from silent partners. That restaurant is running strong, and the couple opened a second El Rodeo in Brunswick last November.

Sanchez is “kind of the soul of the restaurants, both El Rodeo and Azul Tequila,” Fernandez said. “All of the recipes are his.”

He started working in the restaurant business as a teenager in Virginia, Fernandez said. “He started from the bottom, from being the dishwasher, then learning the kitchen and learning how to cook.” 

Sanchez moved with his family to Ohio and eventually the two met in Columbus, Ohio, where he had “just taken over a restaurant” as the manager, Fernandez said. By the time Sanchez left that restaurant, he had doubled the income with his hard work and because “he always tries to bring something new to people. He tries to make the food better, always!”  

 Much like an artist works on a canvas, Sanchez works on the offerings at their restaurants. “We go to Mexico and we try different restaurants and he goes and he tries different foods, and he’ll say, ‘This one has these spices and this sauce has this’,” she said. “His palette is very sensitive!”

   The father-in-law of Sanchez’s brother wanted to open a restaurant in South Portland, and invited Sanchez to run the restaurant.

“South Portland has kept us really busy, because the restaurant is pretty big and we always try to make things better,” Fernandez said. Along with the restaurant, they soon opened a food truck. “At first, me and my husband were waking up at six o’clock in the morning to get a spot in South Portland in downtown to park the truck. And it was little bit crazy at first, but once people got to know the food truck, it was a more simplified menu of burritos, tacos, quesadillas and salad bowls.”

Luis “Lalo” Edwardo Galvan prepares steak fajitas in the kitchen of Azul Tequila, a restaurant on School Street in Gorham that serves authentic Mexican food for pick-up, delivery, or sit-down service. (Tsukroff photo)

People started calling them for private events, but they have not had a lot of business this past year, due to the pandemic, Fernandez said. They were able to get a spot at the Rock Row music venue on Westbrook Arterial in Westbrook for concerts and other live events, although those events also disappeared due to the pandemic.

Like restaurants throughout the area, moving to online ordering and delivery by DoorDash has helped them to retain business at Azul Tequila and El Rodeo, Fernandez said.

Azul Tequila had limited outdoor seating on the front patio area during the warmer months, and can seat guests indoors with appropriate social-distancing. “We have been trying to do everything by the rules,” to keep their guests safe, she said. They placed UV air filter machines in the seating areas to helped purify the air indoors.

The pandemic has led to a redistribution of staff members in order to keep them busy, Fernandez said. “We have a lot of families that depend on us” for work. Staff were given work in the kitchens or taking phone orders. German Hernandez had been a waiter at El Rodeo in South Portland before the pandemic, and is now the manager in Gorham.

Fernandez said she met her husband when she went to work at his restaurant for a month before her classes started at Ohio State. She eventually graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, but said she has not worked in that field because “when we opened South Portland, we were just so busy!”

“Some of the skills I learned at engineering have been put to use” with work on the online menus and with company bookkeeping, she said.

Fernandez was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and came to the U.S. with her parents about 20 years ago. She and Sanchez visit family there yearly, and feature ceramic dishes from Jalisco on the walls of their restaurants. The ceramics of Jalisco have a history that extends far back to the pre-Hispanic period.

Because the restaurants use only fresh products for their food, they don’t have the large freezers often found in other restaurants. In fact, the large freezer at the South Portland location was turned into a storage room, Fernandez said.

Fish and chips tacos from Azul Tequila on School Street in Gorham. Three beer batter haddock tacos tapped with roasted corn salsa and drizzled with chipotle aioli, served with corn tortilla chips and a medium-spice coleslaw. (Tsukroff photo)

At Azul Tequila, Hernandez has created a haddock taco dish for Lent, with Chipotle spices that add flavor but don’t overpower the delicate taste of the fish.

Online orders can be placed at  orderazultequila.com.

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