THE PASSION FOR TRADITION
The colorful neon sign at El Sarape in downtown Riverside has been greeting customers for generations. Robert Palma, the restaurant 's original owner, launched the venture in 1949, providing authentic Michoacán recipes that he brought from Mexico. There are weren't that many Mexican restaurants in the area at the time, so this was a welcomed addition. Besides being a good chef, Palma also was an artist. He produced most of the colorful paintings that decorate the walls of the restaurant, which has a comfortable ambiance with its red leather booths, bright flowers, strings of white lights and, of course, the paintings. Palma and his son made steady progress building their clientele during their 50-plus years of ownership. When they finally did sell, the new owner came in and changed the menu. The popularity of the mainstay took a hit, and he was gone in six months. That's when El Sarape came into the hands of Helen Garcia and her five beautiful daughters. No novice to the restaurant business, Garcia started her career in the food industry when she was 15 years old, working in her mother's restaurant in Mexico. When she arrived in the United States, she was armed with a deep knowledge of food and, in particular, Michoacán-style Mexican food. Garcia brought back the old recipes, adding many more of her own, and the customers started to return. Now, it's hard to find an open table during the busy weekday lunch seating. "She has the flavor in her veins," Isabella Engelauf says of her mother's cooking. The restaurant's proximity to City Hall and other government offices downtown certainly boosts the lunchtime business. In the evening, an older crowd turns out. Many of them have been coming to El Sarape for years. When asked if she has a signature dish, Garcia pondered that for a bit. The Chile Relleno is popular as the Chile Verde, she says. And the salsa - the mild green and spicy red - always has customers asking for more. "There is one group of regulars who can easily down a quart of it at one seating," she says. The menu at El Sarape has many choices. There are the tacos, enchiladas, and burritos that one would expect at a Mexican restaurant, but it might come as a surprise that much of the menu is devoted to seafood, There are even oysters on the half shell. El Sarape serves domestic and imported beer and wine, with the usual non-alcoholic beverages including some Mexican-style soft drinks. It's wonderful to see a restaurant that has been around for this long - but it would never be as popular as this one is if it weren't serving good food at good prices.
- All credit goes to the author of this article and its correspondents, "riversidethemag.com"