Even as a young boy, Avel Avitia knew his mother had a gift for cooking.
“Her food was so good,” he said.
And when she volunteered to bring food to some of the activities at their school in Bishop, Calif., the town agreed with him. And soon her services were in demand for events around the community.
“They all loved it,” he recalled. “They would ask her to cook all the time. Next thing you know, everybody was saying, ‘You should open a restaurant.’”
After working several years in the United States, Miguel Avitia had moved his wife, Inez, and six children from Durango, Mexico, to live with him in Bishop in 1962. He worked in a sawmill. She earned money by doing laundry, ironing and sewing.
At the urging of friends and the community, and with financial support from family, they opened their first restaurant, El Charro Avitia, in 1974. Inez taught her three boys to cook, and the three girls worked in the dining room.
“We had never eaten at a Mexican restaurant until we opened one,” Avel said.
It was a popular restaurant, Avel said, but not enough to provide for the entire family.
“As we got a little older, we all needed to support ourselves,” he said.
So in 1977, they opened a second location in Carson City. Later that year, Avel bought out his parents to be the sole owner at 22 years old.
In those days, he still ran the kitchen, and customers would sometimes ask to meet the owner.
“I’d be cooking, and I’d come out with my white shirt and little white apron,” he said. “They would say, ‘No, I want to meet the owner.’ I had to grow a mustache to try to look older.”
His age wasn’t his only stumbling block. While he committed to sticking to his mother’s original recipes, they weren’t written down and had no real measurements.
“Everything was just a pinch of this or a pinch of that,” Avel said. “I finally had to go, ‘OK, Mom, how may pinches it that? That was like four tablespoons.’ We started writing it down to try to stay consistent. We want somebody who came here 10 years ago and loved it to come back and have that same flavor they had then.”
It seems to have worked. The restaurant has won several Nevada Appeal Reader’s Choice awards for Best Mexican Restaurant. During this interview, a customer interrupted to talk to Avel.
“Your place is the best,” she said. “Your food is so good, we never go anywhere else.”
Avel credits his mother’s recipes, with the unique flavor of the Durango area, along with the family atmosphere he’s tried to keep. Although he no longer cooks, his brother, Tony, runs the bar and his three daughters work for him.
Avel’s own children and stepchildren also waited and bused tables. Cooks Antonio Rubio and Sergio Lemus have both worked for him for more than 20 years. Other employees, including manager Carolyn Prentiss and waitress Pam Ventling, have been there more than 30 years.
Most of their children have also had jobs there.
“A lot of our newest faces are the kids,” Avel said.
He thinks his parents would be proud of how he’s built his business.
“This was the perfect example of the American dream,” he said. “When you come here, you work hard and you’re able to do good because you work hard. We were very poor in Mexico. You really appreciate things when you come from humble beginnings. You remember running around barefoot and stubbing your toes because you didn’t have shoes. A lot of people take it for granted.”
That’s something, he said, that he’ll never do.
“You can’t take it for granted,” he said. “Not in this business. You appreciate everything.”
One way he shows that appreciation is through his support community events, including providing food for many fundraising races such as the recent Escape From Prison Hill Half Marathon.
“You have to give back,” he said. “They only reason we’re here is because of them. It’s a two-way street.”
Now, he and his wife of 15 years, Michelle, are getting ready for Cinco de Mayo, one of their busiest days. They are also planning a complete remodel for the restaurant, which will likely begin this summer. Construction will take place through the night, Avel said, so the restaurant will remain open during the remodel.
He said he’s looking forward to the future, with no impending plans to retire.
“We’re the luckiest people on Earth,” Avel said.
“I agree,” Michelle said.