When he was only 13, Hector Ruiz left the comfort of Morelos, Mexico for something unfamiliar. Now with his third restaurant, he’s inching closer to a fully realized American dream.
“My dad (brought) me to America with a loaf of bread and a glass of water—when I (caught) the bus from Mexico City to Tijuana—following the American dream. And I’m still dreaming it until I can’t,” Ruiz said.
His American dream? Cooking and serving culturally-focused food in his community.
Ruiz does that daily at his south Minneapolis restaurants, Cafe Ena and Rincon 38. Soon to be added to that list is La Fresca. Ruiz is designing the new, deli-style eatery to fit the dining desires of nearby Washburn High School students who leave school for lunch.
Citing the limited neighborhood options—chains like Subway and Brueggers—La Fresca will offer a unique, non-processed menu.
“That’s the whole focus … I want (teenagers) to eat healthy,” he said. “And you guys wanna eat good, (at an) affordable cost.”
Ruiz promises a variety of homemade sandwiches, with sides like chips and guacamole, salads or fries, and a drink for around $7 or $8. Understanding that students need a quick option during the lunch hour, the “press and go” style will make it easy to pop in and out, he said.
“La fresca,” in English, translates to “fresh”—and that’s exactly what all of the ingredients will be. Confessing that it’s a lot of work to get local, homegrown meat and vegetables, Ruiz believes it ultimately results in the best quality and variety for the food he serves.
“(I) bring in tomatoes from this guy … I call him ‘Grandpa Bob’ … that I’ve been doing business with for five years. He’s gonna give me the best and local draw,” Ruiz said. “I like to be the best of the best. That’s my problem.”
For young patrons of the new restaurant, that should prove to be a good problem.
A variety of homemade, organic sandwiches with an authentic Mexican twist will be the main feature on La Fresca’s menu. All sandwiches will be served on homemade bolillo, a Mexican baguette with “crunchiness.” Options will range from a Cochinito—marinated pork in a dry pepper sauce, ham, avocado and a black bean jalapeño aioli—to a vegetarian sandwich with roasted red pepper, Mexican mozzarella cheese, avocado and black beans.
Ruiz expects the daytime menu to evolve. Not only does he plan to incorporate an ice cream shop after he returns from Mexico to learn the craft, but he wants students to give him input.
“We can do soups. You don’t (have) seven, you got five bucks? Soups and bread. I wanna know what students want. Somali kids? Lamb sandwich. I know the culture; Mexican, Asian, Middle Eastern, cause I want it to be for you guys,” he said. “I wanna be here as long as you (Washburn students) want me to.”
Right: Homemade guacamole (top) and the Cochinito (middle marinated pork in a dry pepper sauce, ham, avocado and a black bean jalapeño aioli) are just two of the options that will be offered at Hector Ruiz’s new La Fresca restaurant. (Photo by ThreeSixty staff)
Along with providing whatever food students crave, Ruiz hopes to work with Washburn administration to arrange for a percentage of his La Fresca proceeds to go to the high school. He said his Mexican culture, and more than 20 years as a south Minneapolis resident, foster that desire.
“I think American entrepreneurs, they should give back something,” he said.
Having left Mexico almost 25 years ago, Ruiz is inching closer to his fully realized American dream.
He received a formal cooking education from Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and eventually studied under a master chef in France. The son of a caterer, Ruiz experimented with cooking as a child. However, before making it his life’s work, he tried to ignore his calling five times, dabbling in jobs like UPS driver and helping his dad in a shipping and receiving business.
Finally, he caved. It wasn’t worth the internal battle of denying his roots, and he ultimately ended up back in the food industry, staying true to his passion.
“I don’t think money is the drive for me. I do it because I like it … because I love it,” Ruiz said. “Don’t do (anything) because you have to or because (of) money … Love is priceless.”
As of ThreeSixty press time, work at La Fresca was being finalized for an early-to-mid-December opening. Ruiz said the restaurant will also transform into a 36-seat, higher-scale dining experience at night. La Fresca is located at 4750 Grand Ave. S, Minneapolis.