David Suro-Piñera grew up loving tequila. He can tell you how a distillery works; he’s been visiting them since he was a teenager. He produces a brand of spirits from the sweeping blue agave fields of Jalisco. He started a foundation for tequila farmers in rural Mexico who lack running water. But when the now-owner of Tequilas restaurant moved to Philadelphia from Guadalajara in 1985, he switched his drink of choice to whiskey. It wasn’t a change in preference — according to Suro-Piñera, the tequila available in Philly was just that bad.
Suro-Piñera’s restaurant in Rittenhouse was his answer to what he saw as a hole in the city’s food and drink scene. When Tequilas opened in 1986, it was the lone Mexican restaurant on Locust Street, with a name that he was warned to avoid.
“The name of the restaurant — it was something that people questioned if they should be exploring that restaurant ... because the word ‘tequila’ is related to a bad experience, to something cheap,” Suro-Piñera says, referencing bottom-shelf tequilas common at college parties and in early 20-somethings’ apartments.
But Suro-Piñera didn’t budge on the name: “I said, ‘No, I prefer to help people change their perceptions.’”
“We’re still here”
As a young adult, Suro-Piñera left his hometown of Guadalajara to work in Cancun’s burgeoning resort industry. He scrubbed bathroom floors and worked his way up to restaurant server. That’s when he met his wife, Annette Suro-Cipolloni, a Philadelphian on vacation in Cancun. (They’re no longer married, but remain business partners.)
Soon, the couple was expecting their first child. They relocated to Philadelphia, with plans to eventually return to Mexico.
“But 34 years later, we’re still here,” Suro-Piñera says.
Once in Philly, 23-year-old Suro-Piñera landed a job at El Metate, a Mexican-American restaurant at 1511 Locust Street. For Suro-Piñera, the food was far more American than Mexican. He struggled to recognize the names of the dishes — or the heaps of yellow cheese sprinkled on top of them.
“I was born there,” he says. “How come these dishes [make] no sense to me?”
When El Metate’s owner offered to sell the restaurant to Suro-Piñera, he said yes.
At 24, with a loan from his father-in-law, Suro-Piñera and Suro-Cipolloni bought the property. The thought of returning to Mexico slowly melted away.
Philadelphia’s Mexican population would grow rapidly in later years, but in the 1980s, the population, and demand for Mexican food, didn’t yet exist.
So when Suro-Piñera and Suro-Cipolloni opened Tequilas, there was one glaring obstacle: Mexican ingredients were nowhere to be found.
“Back then, I asked for cilantro in some of the markets here,” Suro-Piñera remembers. “And they look[ed] at me as if I was asking for drugs.”
In the restaurant’s early days, Suro-Piñera traveled to Chicago twice a month, where he gathered tomatillos and dried chiles at a food distribution center. Even there, he couldn’t find epazote — a leafy herb used often in Mexican dishes.
“In southern Mexican cuisine, epazote’s one of the main ingredients. It’s almost like salt and pepper,” Suro-Piñera says.
Jesus Moyao, the first chef at Tequilas, had traveled from the southern state of Guerrero to work at the Philly restaurant. Without epazote, he was distraught, Suro-Piñera recalls.
That changed when the two were driving through Philadelphia and Moyao suddenly stopped the car and jumped out. The chef ran to the sidewalk and began ripping plants from the ground in a frenzy.
Suro-Piñera was dumbfounded — until he heard what Moyao was shouting.
“He [looks] at me and he starts screaming, ‘epazote!’” Suro-Piñera says.
The herb, they discovered, grows wild in Philadelphia.
“So there we are,” Suro-Piñera says, “going to all these different areas in the city, collecting epazote from the sidewalks.”
More than a decade later, when Alfredo Aquilar opened Mexican restaurant Las Cazuelas at 426 W. Girard Avenue in 1999, he encountered similar problems. On a shorter commute than Suro-Piñera’s Chicago trips, Aquilar traveled to New York once a week in search of cebollitas and cactus.
Aquilar had taken his wife to Tequilas on their first date. It was one of only two Mexican restaurants he knew of; the other, El Mariachi, is long closed.
“It was a treat,” Aquilar says of dining at Tequilas. “You would show them off, like, ‘no, this is Mexican food. ... [T]hey would actually cook the real stuff.”
Mexican Food in Philly Today
Tequilas is no longer one of the only Mexican restaurants in Philly, and Suro-Piñera’s chefs no longer have to rip epazote from the ground. His oldest son — who was born shortly before the restaurant opened — manages Tequilas and buys the restaurant’s food and alcohol.
“He definitely didn’t have it easy, my father. At all,” says David Suro Jr. “Thankfully, I have access to everything now.”
There are now dozens of Mexican restaurants scattered throughout Philadelphia, which both father and son appreciate.
Unlike Philadelphia, Tequilas’ menu hasn’t changed much. It spans Mexico’s regions, offering tuna ceviche with cactus, poblano pepper stuffed with beef and raisin picadillo, tortilla soup seasoned with guajillo chile (and of course, epazote).
If a diner is there at the right time, sunlight will flood through the windows, illuminating bottles of tequilas and mezcals.
In his selection process, Suro Jr. avoids mass-produced spirits and goes for 100 percent agave-based selections — unlike mixed tequila, which can contain up to 49 percent of another spirit.
“You want to sip on it like you’re sipping on wine, or a good cognac,” explains David Suro Jr.
And three decades later, Suro-Piñera himself is satisfied that he never changed the restaurant’s name.
“There were some people who were claiming that ‘Tequilas’ was too Mexican for Philadelphia,” he says. “And I take that as a great compliment.”