The Stick’s shopping center is at the center of the Reno’s revitalization and the happening Midtown District. It’s hard to miss the bright air of Mari & Chuy’s Mexican Kitchen, amongst Midtown’s retro brick facades and chic boutiques. The colorful restaurant has bold red walls and large garage-style windows which are rolled open on warm days for an indoor-outdoor vibe perfect for sucking down margaritas. Owner Chuy Guitierrez’s warmth and passion touch everything from the friendly atmosphere to the scaled down menu, which highlights only the freshest ingredients. We sat down with Chuy for a behind-the-scenes look at Midtown’s favorite Mexican restaurant.
How did you wind up in Reno?
In 1977 I came from Mexico to L.A. My dream was always to become a chef. Arriving in Los Angeles when I was ten years old it was a scary thing. I knew even then I wanted to become a chef and be the owner of a restaurant. I was in Los Angeles for a few years, and I came to Reno in 1979. My oldest brother said let’s go to Reno, and I said okay.
We were coming down from Truckee, and I saw these beautiful buildings, Circus Circus, El Dorado and Harrah’s. I asked my brother what they were and he said they were hotels. Right away in my mind, I knew I wanted to work there.
I came early the next morning, and I saw the Executive Chef having a coffee early in the morning, about 4:30 in the morning. I was just a kid 11 years old looking for a job. I went in there, went straight to the chef and asked in Spanish because my English wasn’t good if I could have a job and they put me to work. Now fast forward 28 years later.
I worked in every department in El Dorado from washing dishes. I gained education, knowledge, and now I’m here in Midtown.
Tell us about your food philosophy?
Right now we are experiencing a great thing in food culture. I want to bring my experience back to life, which is knowing how to grow plants, know how to cut them, know how to make nice dishes. It might take a little longer, but it’s healthier than if you just got to the grocery store and opened a can. You have no idea how long it has been on the shelves. To me as a chef that’s not food. To me going through my grandma’s garden to cut lettuce and make a salad for the family, that’s food.
My grandmother taught me about food. For her it was about earning your food, cultivating it. If I said “Grandma, I want to have a chicken, vegetable soup today,” there was no such thing as going to the fridge and get the chicken and vegetables. It was: get the chicken, get the water boiling, get the feathers out, and get your veggies. Not go to the fridge warm it up and serve it. It was a whole process that went into a good meal.
I get very tense with my meals. Back in my mind, I never had the luxury of there is the money now go to the grocery store and get your meal. You had to go to the farm; it was a big thing.
What was your inspiration for starting your restaurant?
Since I arrived in Reno the culture of food, especially at El Dorado, has changed. It used to be everything we’ve been talking about. There was a ranch, and you’d get fresh parsley and basil, everything from the ranch. That was what made it so popular back in the day. Everything was fresh, fresh pasta, fresh ice creams, fresh vegetables. Things started getting commercialized. That’s when I decided to move on. They gave me the opportunity to open the Silver Legacy, and ten years later I decided to jump out on my own and do what I love. When you love what you do, it’s not a job anymore.
What inspires your menu and dining experience?
I love having long term relationships with customers. I love to see people return. That’s why we have such a small menu so I can control the quality. I don’t want to see a lot of backed up inventory if we start to get that we make some new specials so that we are always using the freshest ingredients. When you see three or four page long menus, you get lost.
When I go to mom and pop shops here locally, I always go straight to the chef and ask what’s good.
What are your favorite restaurants in town?
I go to Luciano’s on Lakeside that’s my Italian. I go to Kwok’s on West. I know those people, I know what they can do. When I’m there, I feel welcome.
What is a food item or ingredient that you think is underappreciated?
Freshness. A lot of people come in here and say “this isn’t Taco Bell” if you’re comparing me to Taco Bell you don’t know what you’re missing. A good meal starts in your mind. You don’t want to have to worry about the food you’re putting in your body. I always welcome people into the kitchen. The freshness makes it easy for us to accommodate people with dietary restrictions.
What do you want people to know about Mari & Chuy’s?
I want people to know we are a community-oriented; we strive for the best customer service and healthy food.
What do you consider your signature menu items?
We have three! The Molcajete which is very family oriented, fish tacos, and chili relleno. Those are the things that really encapsulate what we do.
Stop in to try some of Mari Chuys fresh Mexican cuisine, 764 S Virginia St., 11am-9pm, Monday – Saturday, or get a taste of their signature fish tacos on a Reno Food Tour!