Cielito Lindo offers authentic Mexican experience

Cielito Lindo Server Rene Garcia, left, and co-owner Jose Pepe Lopez tend to customers during lunch rush hour at the restaurant, 815 N.H. The business opened in October and serves Mexican fare, including authentic mole sauces.

Cielito Lindo's Jose Pepe Lopez, foreground, co-owner David Valadez, right, and server Rene Garcia, left, are pictured inside the downtown restaurant.

First it was Dos Hombres, a popular Mexican restaurant and club that had a good run for years, known for its south-of-the-border appetizers, beverages and into-the-night fiestas on its outdoor patio.

Then it attracted Raoul’s Velvet Room – a Lawrence version of an Overland Park supper club and martini bar – an establishment that enjoyed a shorter lifespan.

And after that, it housed EightOneFive, a cafe and nightclub that also proved to lack staying power.

Now the 5,500-square-foot, two-level space plus fenced patio at 815 N.H. is returning to its culinary past, as the home of Cielito Lindo Mexican Restaurant & Cantina.

The business, which opened in October, is co-owned by friends Jose “Pepe” Lopez, David Valadez and Dionicio Zaragosa.

The three men – all natives of Mexico – have spent years working in restaurants. While this is the first ownership venture for Lopez and Valadez (they previously worked in Manhattan and Junction City), Zaragosa owns a Mexican restaurant, El Cazador, in Topeka.

“We saw an opportunity here, and we decided to give it a try. This place was for rent, and it looked like it would be a good location for us,” said Lopez, 34.

The owners had to do a lot of remodeling work to replace the retro vibe of the space’s former occupants in order to recreate it as a colorful, festive Mexican cantina.

“Mostly, it was all black, so we had to repaint it. It took a long time,” Lopez says.

Now the interior is bright orange and decorated with sombreros and other bric-a-brac that give it a spicy feel.

The building is owned by First Management Inc., which leased the property to Lopez’s group for three years, with options for extensions.

The business was to have been called Margaritas, but that turned out to be problematic for the trio of owners. Another business, also called Margaritas – with four locations in the Kansas City metro area – protested, so the men changed the name of their new restaurant to Cielito Lindo.

The name, according to Lopez, means, “a pretty little place, a pretty little sky.”

Cielito Lindo has six full-time employees, and the manager-owners are looking to hire a few part-time employees, Lopez says.

Business has been slowly building since the restaurant’s early October opening, say Lopez and Valadez, both of whom now live in Lawrence.

“On the weekends, it’s all right. This weekend, after a KU basketball game, we got slammed. The rest of the day, we’re doing OK,” Lopez says.

The men are thinking of adding a delivery service, as well as a buffet, which they think might help to increase walk-in traffic.

“It’s hard to decide what to do to attract more customers and to be able to serve them better,” Lopez says.

They describe their mix of customers as diverse, including college students, people who work downtown and many families.

And word of the restaurant is getting around. “Everybody who comes in says, ‘We heard about the margaritas.’ They’re really good,” Lopez says.

The food – a wide variety of Mexican dishes – is also getting compliments.

“David (Valadez) got all our recipes from his years of experience working in other restaurants, and he gave them to our cooks,” Lopez adds.

“People say our salsa is thicker (than at other restaurants), not watered down. We have, like, seven different kinds of salsas, for different dishes.”

As far as the food’s authenticity, Lopez says that, yes, the Mexican offerings reflect an attempt to appeal to American tastes. But other aspects of the menu are more reminiscent of true Mexican cuisine.

“The sauce we use on our enchiladas is like a mole (pronounced MOLE-ay),” Lopez says.

Mole is a dark brown sauce made from dry chiles, nuts, spices, vegetables, chocolate and seasonings.

Lopez and Valadez, 25, both come from a town called Degollado, in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Lopez actually knew Valadez when the younger man was an 8-year-old boy in their hometown. Lopez worked in a carniceria – a butcher shop – located next door to a shop owned by Valadez’s father.

But the two men hadn’t seen each other in many years, until they were both working at a restaurant in Junction City, and they rediscovered their ties.

Lopez came to the United States when he was 18, while Valadez moved here from Mexico in 1998.

The two men acknowledge that they will face stiff competition from Lawrence’s other Mexican restaurants located around town. Indeed, La Familia Cafe and Cantina, 733 N.H., is just a few doors away and enjoys a devoted following.

But they say they have a few things working in their favor, such as a large, outdoor patio, party rooms that can accommodate 40 to 50 guests oh, and those good margaritas.

How will they know when their new venture is a success?

“When we have a lot of traffic coming in, a steady pace. The restaurant doesn’t have to be filled. Sunday, it wasn’t filled. We had people coming in and going out. We like it that way,” Lopez says.