Pepitos owner Joe Minjares feels okay about turning over the keys to St. Paul’s El Burrito. El Burrito is also a family-run restaurant, with a history nearly as long as Pepitos. Minjares met the family years ago, and sold them a tortilla maker around 1980. And oddly enough, both his grandparents and the El Burrito founders hail from the same Mexican town, Aguascalientes.
“They’re going to do a great job,” he said.
Minjares said he fielded several offers for the property at 4820 Chicago Ave., but the El Burrito proposal was the best. Investor Ward Johnson lives a few blocks from the restaurant, and business partner Eddie Landenberger lives in Kingfield. They want to renovate the neighboring Parkway Theater and present indie films, live performances and even chamber musicians.
“We’re just two local guys that really want to continue investing in the neighborhood,” Landenberger said.
El Burrito may add a grab-and-go deli, and the space would continue operating as a bar and restaurant.
“We will keep that family feel and make it family-friendly,” said Analita Silva, who co-owns the business with her mother Suzanne and aunt Milissa Silva-Diaz.
She said El Burrito is famous for its tamales and guisado taco fillings, which are stewed meats that range from spicy shredded chicken to pork in salsa verde.
Her grandparents Tomas and Maria Silva opened El Burrito Mercado in 1979 in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood. The grocery store offered spices and chili peppers not sold in traditional grocery stores, requiring her grandfather to drive to Chicago weekly to buy the ingredients wholesale.
“We’ve heard people come in and say it’s ‘Little Mexico,’” Analita said.
El Burrito has continually expanded, taking over neighboring storefronts to add space for the bakery, hot deli, butcher shop and restaurant seating. The business employs more than 80 people, and in 2017 the restaurant opened a patio and launched a food truck. El Burrito was named Minnesota’s Minority-Owned Small Business of the Year in 2017 by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
They’re aiming to open the Minneapolis restaurant in mid-May or early June, envisioning a bar design with a focus on influential Latina women.
Minjares said it’s hard to let the restaurant go, but he’s glad the stress is over. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and recently underwent a successful lung transplant, and said he’s feeling better every day. He said he may return to stage acting, and he’s writing a new screenplay. (St. Paul’s History Theatre performed his screenplay “River Road Boogie: The Augie Garcia Story” in 2015.) Most restaurants quickly come and go, he said, and Pepitos hung on for 46 years.
“I can look back with pride,” he said.
The Parkway Theater renovation will begin shortly after the Bow Wow Film Festival March 3. If feasible, Johnson hopes to refurbish the seats while preserving the art deco details along the aisles. While they will upgrade digital projection equipment, they will also keep the 35mm projector to show classic movies on film attached to their original trailers. They also plan to upgrade the sound system to improve the experience for both performers and patrons. Alongside movie popcorn and concessions, a mixologist will develop a bar program.
“I’ve always been drawn to the idea of owning a movie theater,” said Johnson, who said he’s excited to take on a passion project in his own neighborhood. “…Selfishly, I want to see both businesses restored to their glory days.”