GRANDE AMBITION Carlos Alas Grande plans to expand the Don Julio menu—and your mind along with it.
When Carlos Alas Grande started selling his mother's hand-made pupusas to his high school friends, he would wrap about 20 of the savory griddle cakes in foil and cinch the condiments into plastic bags.
Word spread, and soon his mother, Evelyn Sanabria, was making up to a hundred pupusas twice a month for him to sell to classmates and coworkers. Now, at age 25, he sells about 275 of his mom's pupusas everyday on colorful plates in the restaurant he owns.
"When you have them fresh from the grill to the plate, it's so different," Alas Grande says. He jokes about how everyone thought they changed the recipe after he and his family opened Don Julio's Rincon Latin Grill & Pupusas in Rohnert Park.
The warm, cheesy pupusas ($2.99) are best topped with curtido—lightly fermented, seasoned cabbage—and a savory tomato salsa. Each bite is balanced with richness and tanginess, and tied together with earthy Mexican oregano in the curtido.
It's a family tradition that became a family business, a business Alas Grande hopes will enable him to give back to his family. The progression of selling pupusas in foil to selling them on plates wasn't as easy as it sounds. Opening a restaurant was a gamble for him and his family, especially after his mother quit her job and, three weeks before they opened, his father, Julio Sanabria, permanently injured his arm in a car accident. But through word of mouth, Don Julio's has seen a stream of regulars.
"It's honestly what keeps us thriving," Alas Grande says.
After Petaluma musician Kirk Heydt tasted Don Julio's for the first time, he told the guy on the corner to go and try it. Then he told someone at the gas station. Now he brings his family and tells all of his friends, because he just loves the food.
"She's like an artist," Heydt says of Evelyn Sanabria.
Aside from a variety of pupusas, the menu features Mexican classics, and Alas Grande hopes to expand the menu to include more of Evelyn's Salvadoran dishes, like tamales wrapped in plantain, torrejas (Salvadoran French toast) and chicharrón—fried pig skin—with yucca root.
Sanabria cooks while Alas Grande runs the front and works the business side, but he has bigger plans. He watched his mother cook in Mexican restaurants when he was a child and knows she always wanted her own place. "Five years is my goal, and then I want to retire them, especially after my dad's accident," Alas Grande says. "I want to get to the level where she's at, where she knows how to make everything without even having to measure it out."
He hopes his mom can eventually oversee the restaurant and not have to run the kitchen when he and his younger brother, Cesar, take it over.
Alas Grande says that since they opened the restaurant, he's spending more time with his family, and he loves seeing his mom's dream come true.
"She'll come home tired, but it's a different type of tired. We're doing it for ourselves now," he says. "That for me is the biggest satisfaction."
Don Julio's Rincon Latin Grill & Pupusas. 217 Southwest Blvd. Rohnert Park. 707.242.3160.