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Juan Villanueva: A Delta Story That Begins South of the Border

Article by Christian Owen

Photography by Sarah Bell, Sélavie Photography

Originally published in River City Lifestyle

Many Miles Traveled

Heading south on Mississippi Highway 61, about 30 minutes from the Tennessee state line, vast farmland and prominent landmarks signal the approaching town of Tunica and embody the area’s recent history: flashing signs pointing to casinos, an 18-hole golf course, a colossal arena and more. These venues can be quiet depending on the season, but the parking lots of three neighboring businesses owned by one of the Delta’s most popular restaurant entrepreneurs, Juan Villanueva, stay busy. 

Juan, routinely travels 95 miles through the Mississippi Delta from his home in Lake Cormorant, just north of Tunica, to manage five businesses located in Tunica, Cleveland and Ruleville—three Mexico Grills, the Blue & White diner, and Tunica Wine & Spirits. Tunica Wine & Spirits is managed by his wife, Maria, and as of this summer, he is adding the Mexico Grill’s fourth location. It is weeks from opening its doors to customers on DeSoto County’s Goodman Road just across the Memphis, Tennessee, stateline. The customer service and festive presentation Juan and his staff are known for will, of course, be carried over to the new restaurant. In this, his sixth business in the Midsouth, he plans to add even more to the experience, such as tableside preparation of fresh guacamole (the restaurant’s popular “Guacamole Live”) and an expanded menu.

Juan emigrated from Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1994 at age 14, leaving behind his mother and father, six brothers, three sisters, his girlfriend Maria, and an opportunity to train with a professional soccer league. He moved from a hilly, rural landscape colored with strawberry fields and corn to the flatlands of Mississippi known for acres of cotton, soybeans and rice. Juan did not speak English at all, but with the help of a brother-in-law living in Mississippi, he found a job working as a dishwasher at the Guadelajara Mexican restaurant. 

Juan’s father was in the military and then worked as a security guard and next at a supermarket. Juan knew the financial strains on his parents, and in the U.S., he knew there was a job where he could make much more money than he could ever make in Mexico because of the value of the American dollar compared to the Mexican peso. Three of Juan’s brothers also came to the U.S. at different times but chose to go back after about a year. 

Green Card in hand, one of Juan’s first hurdles was learning the English language. He had an opportunity to take English in the seventh grade, but chose not to. “I was like, why should I? What do I need English for? And here I am,” he reflects. When he started working as a busboy—cleaning tables and delivering chips to the tables—he would listen to the customers talk. He meticulously wrote words related to the restaurant such as chair, salt, pepper shaker, glass, fork and knife. He would type words in Spanish, give the lists to his bosses, and they would return it to him translated to English. The rest of his training included watching cartoons in English while living with his brother-in-law.

At 16, Juan briefly visited Guanajuato, then returned to work another year at the restaurant in Cleveland, Mississippi, before going back to Mexico to marry Maria. Juan and his new bride lived in Cleveland, Mississippi. In 1999, their first child was on the way. Maria struggled with the challenges of pregnancy, minimal family close by, her husband’s unpredictable work schedule and, in turn, returned to her home in Mexico, where their daughter, Wendy, was born. 

Juan worked at more than one restaurant within a 200-mile radius for six years, and at that point, Maria was expecting a second child, their son, Edwin. At the same juncture, his employers decided to revamp their business, which included construction of a new building, so Juan was without a job. It was an unsettling time for his family. “Then, I had to do something. I couldn’t just wait. That’s when I started looking to find something somewhere else,” he vividly remembers.  

Somewhere else turned into 15 years of building a successful series of businesses. He made his way north from Cleveland to Tunica, where he spotted El Ranchito on 61 on the south side of town. Juan became the manager. After a year, his request for a raise was denied, so Juan visited a local bank to discuss getting a loan to start his own restaurant. 

Juan’s first restaurant was launched in a lease agreement with another local entrepreneur, John Mohead. The first Mexico Grill, opened in 2008 and was part of a short-lived but active strip of restaurants and shops just north of town and also on 61—a pizza place, a women’s apparel store, and the High Cotton Liquor store. In 2012, when those small businesses scattered, Juan moved the Mexico Grill to its second and current location a bit further north in a building formerly occupied by the locally owned Catfish Grill.   

Two of Juan’s friends who he worked with in Cleveland at the Guadalajara restaurant approached him in 2015 about becoming business partners. Juan agreed to the plan, which was to open another Mexico Grill in Cleveland, but first, he talked to his former bosses at the Guadalajara. They had been kind to him in the past, so he was uncomfortable with the idea of opening a competing business nearby. But they encouraged Juan, saying, “Come on. It’s okay. Cleveland is big. It’s a college town. There’re a lot of people making it. We will make it.”    

Ruleville, Mississippi, became the site of a third Mexico Grill in 2018, in collaboration with a friend from Irapuato who had worked as a cook at the Guadalajara in Cleveland. Two other businesses Juan has acquired include Tunica Wine & Spirits in 2017, and in 2019 he took over the longstanding Blue & White, a diner known for Southern comfort food that has been in operation since 1937.

From Furniture to Micheladas, an Authentic Experience

Juan is especially proud of the furniture at Mexico Grill. In all locations, his restaurants are furnished with custom-made pieces from Guadalajara that he designed. Hand-carved tables, chairs, even the baby chairs, are painted with lively, romantic scenes from Mexico. The walls are equally vibrant with detailed murals. The theme is continued with festive light fixtures, strings of lights and Mexican music, sometimes live, in the background. 

Juan was happy to share the source for his furniture with his former bosses at the Guadalajara restaurant. They were pleased to support an artisan in their former home of Guadalajara and ordered the same inventory Juan designed per his direction. Today, that small artisan who Juan happened upon in a one-room studio on the streets of Guadalajara now has a website and an international clientele stemming from his initial projects with Juan for multiple Mississippi restaurants. Juan says business is good for the Mexican craftsman. His fourth Mexico Grill in Desoto County will also be filled with furniture from this same craftsman.

Juan caters to non-Latino customers and, therefore, considers his customers like tourists. Like tourists, customers appreciate Mexico Grill’s authentic activity and culinary traditions. All of Juan’s restaurants are some of the most active businesses greeting visitors to Tunica. 

Prior to his arrival in the U.S., Juan did not have a background in the restaurant business, but his mother did operate a food stand in Mexico. She’d set up a few tables in their garage, and people would stop by at night to enjoy her homemade meals. With 15 family members to care for, she operated the food stand for extra income. 

Ironically, Juan learned to cook Tex-Mex food in Irapuato. Even though they are in Mexico, he says the food is called “Tex-Mex” because they are just south of the U.S., close to Texas. However, even at age 14, he was quick to realize the differences between Mexican food in Irapuato and Mississippi. “We don’t have fajitas in Mexico. We don’t eat fajitas,” Juan says. One of the few options on his menu resembling its counterpart in Mexico are the flautas, a preparation of soft corn tortillas with shredded chicken or shredded beef rolled up inside. This is Juan’s favorite item on the menu. Flautas are cooked in a deep fryer and served with a little bit of lettuce, sour cream, pico de gallo and rice. 

At his Mexico Grill restaurants, Juan describes the menu as Tex-Mex and heavily Americanized. The food in his native city of Irapuato is much spicier, and he says they eat corn tortillas “every day, everywhere.” Juan explains that in southern Mexico, they use nothing but corn. On the north side, they primarily use wheat flour to make tortillas, typically for burritos, which are more common in northern Mexico as a result of European settlement in that area dating back to the 16th century. Another variation of the tortilla at Americanized Mexican restaurants is its place on the table. In Mexico, tortillas are treated more like the breadbasket. Wrapping food in a tortilla is an option, not a preplanned arrangement. 

All three Mexico Grills have a full bar, and margaritas are another menu item that closely resembles its counterpart in Mexico with the same tequila and triple sec. Juan describes one drink that everybody drinks in Mexico called Michelada. It is a spicy beer with tomato juice and tajin seasoning, a lot like a Bloody Mary, but with beer. He cannot prepare “authentic” Micheladas for his Mississippi customers. Instead, he says he has to change the beverage a bit “to make it better for everybody.” His Americanized version is made with less pepper and spice. 

Big Successes, Small Towns and Family

Juan says it is important to him that his children see the culture of Mexico. He wants them to see where he is from, so they visit often. Wendy and Edwin speak and write fluently in English and Spanish, and both have exceled in high school and college.

Juan’s friends and family in Mexico still ask him from time to time why he chooses to live in the U.S., to which he answers, “I’m working, doing my thing.” But with a hint of melancholy in his voice, he admits it’s not always easy, and he says he wants his children to know how he used to live. They never go back to Mexico empty-handed. Juan, Maria, Wendy and Edwin enjoy sharing the clothes they have outgrown with the children in Juan’s childhood neighborhood.

The Villanueva family is well traveled. They have been many places in the U.S. Juan says he likes southern, small towns best, and he demonstrates his sense of community by saying yes to almost any requests for involvement in Tunica. From charitable fundraisers to donations for cheerleader uniforms, Juan is often in the background offering support: “I like it here. Life here is quiet. I’m not a city guy. I don’t like traffic. If we all go to Memphis, I like to drive on 240, go everywhere I want to, but just to go and come back. I’ve always been in a small town.” 

However, Juan’s successes are anything but small. By the way, we know where the next Mexico Grill, number five, is going to be! Plans are already in the works but a bit premature to announce. Juan is still thinking big and growing, a testimony to his guiding principle of “putting your mind into what you want to do and doing it.”

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