Mixing Mexican culture and cuisine at Casa Colima
Hillsdale has had a traditional, family-style Mexican restaurant on Capitol Highway for as long as most locals can remember.
In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of child diners got their first exposure to Mexican cuisine and culture at Ponchos. But the future looked grim around the turn of the century when new owners took over. Within two years the restaurant, called Mucha Grande, was on the ropes.
But the tradition was preserved for the children and grandchildren of those earlier Southwest Portland patrons. The Ochoa family from Colima, Mexico, by way of Orange County, California, took it over and turned it around.
As the family prepares to host a weekend of Cinco de Mayo festivities, Bryan Ochoa, oldest son of owner and founder Alonzo Ochoa, speaks with gratitude of the family that opened Ponchos, just the second Mexican restaurant in Portland. The first was Ponchos on Northeast Sandy Boulevard — and he even thanks the owners who almost blew it.
"They're out of business now but they opened the gates for us so we could do our own thing and we're very grateful for that," Bryan said. "In Hillsdale, dad wanted to create something long term."
Alonzo Ochoa, his wife Elsa, and their four sons took some major steps forward in 2018 and look ready to keep expanding. There is now a Casa Colima in Vancouver and one in Tualatin. By the end of 2019, Bryan says they hope to have another new restaurant open in Happy Valley. For 2020, they're looking at Ridgefield, Washington.
What patrons in those new locations will find is a version of the vision the Ochoas brought to Hillsdale in September of 2003: an extensive, often-adventurous menu, really friendly servers, unexpected versions of the margarita, a lively clientele and authentic Mexican art, music and furnishings.
"My dad is always really big on telling us 'We're not a five-star restaurant,'" Bryan said. "The keys to our restaurants, in my dad's way of thinking, which we've incorporated into our culture, is that we're not the fanciest of restaurants, but that doesn't mean we can't give that level of food and service. We don't try to go for super fancy. We go for the best quality, the highest quality we can get and our customers appreciate that."
He gave an example.
"Most Mexican restaurants, when they offer carne asada, they use any kind of beef. We like to use only outside strip steak, which sells for $9 a pound. It's a very expensive steak that we offer at a reasonable price and our customers really like it," Bryan said.
Then there are those margaritas served in 48-ounce glasses.
"My dad and I looked at what Voodoo Donuts was doing and how people really like the weird stuff," the satisfied mixologist said. "So we had a few weird ideas of our own a few years ago. We created the Jalapeno Cucumber and the Habanero Margarita. The Jalapeno Cucumber is our number-one selling margarita."
CASA COLIMA'S ORIGIN STORY
Elsa and Alonzo Ochoa grew up living next door to each other in Colima, Mexico, which is the capital of the State of Colima in western Mexico not far from the Pacific Ocean. Manzanillo is due west on the ocean and northwest of Colima is Guadalajara, the source of the furniture and fixtures in Casa Colima's three restaurants.
In their early 20s, Elsa and Alonzo emigrated to Orange County where relatives assured them there was work in the restaurant industry. There was, but Alonzo wanted to own and run his own restaurant and Southern California already had plenty of Mexican operations.
So after moving to Oregon and working his way into management with the Azteca Mexican Restaurant chain, he saw an opportunity in Hillsdale.
"My parents saved and saved and saved and thankfully in September 2003 we opened this restaurant," Bryan said. "It's two stories, holds up to 450 people and sometimes gets crazy."
After that opening, Bryan recalls, "We were really close a couple of times to not making it, like every other restaurant, but we stuck it out. We gave it our full effort. We had some really good employees who stayed with us and now, they're all doing really well."
The head bartender, Sergio Garcia, has been with the Ochoa family for 15 years and the head chef, Marcos Hernandez, just celebrated his 10th year at Casa Colima.
OCHOA FAMILY VALUES
"We have a very low turnover of employees because we're old school, we treat them right," Bryan said. "A lot of restaurants nowadays are hiring a lot of people and then working them the minimum number of hours. That's really good for the restaurant because you make a lot of money. But it's not good for the employees you hire.
"What we do here at Casa Colima is we make a schedule for our employees and it stays the same for six months, so people know when their days off are and they can plan schedules around them."
"And they're not going to get a call from one of us asking them to come in on their days off, Bryan added. "We'd much rather come in ourselves and cover those shifts. That way, they are rested and taken care of."
Bryan, the oldest son, has a degree in business from Portland State University. Miguel is next; he works in real estate at ReMax in Hillsdale and at the restaurant. Alex, the third son, works full time at the Vancouver location. Braulio, the youngest, attends Beaverton High School — as his three brothers did — when he's not working at one of the restaurants.
"It is a very unique, and I think awesome, opportunity to work here," Bryan said. "A lot of restaurants might say 'family-owned' or 'family-operated' but that's not always the case. I'm here every day. My brother and dad are at the Vancouver location. My mom is working in Tualatin." Bryan's wife works at the Hillsdale restaurant and is expecting a baby girl in July, "so we'll have another employee here in a few years," Bryan added.
Proper treatment of employees was a hallmark of Ponchos as well. One patron from those days recalls that the owners would take anyone who had worked there more than two years on an annual all-expenses-paid trip to Mazatlan.
CINCO DE MAYO NOT THE ONLY BIG DAY
The celebration of a morale-building, against-great-odds victory in 1862 by Mexican troops, who beat back an invasion of French troops led by Napoleon III, takes place on the 5th of May, which falls on a Sunday this year.
"So we'll be celebrating all weekend," Bryan said. "There will be drink and food specials. Our staff will work all day from nine in the morning because lots of food needs to be prepared. And there will be tequila shots in the bar."
Cinco de Mayo is no longer the only business-boosting event with roots in Mexico on the Casa Colima calendar.
"We held a Dia De los Muertos celebration on the first of November for the first time last year and it was beautiful," said Bryan, of the pageantry put together for the day on which legend says Mexican families reunite with the souls of their dead ancestors.
"Have you seen the movie "Coco?" We have face painters and costumes based on the characters in that movie, which is excellent, by the way," Bryan said.