MOORESVILLE – Juan Naranjo grew up as an heir to a mini Mexican restaurant empire. His parents came from Mexico and began El Pueblito, which means small town, over 25 years ago and grew it into a seven-restaurant chain in Northwest Georgia.
He worked for 12 years at his parents’ restaurants, starting as a dishwasher and eventually becoming a manager. However, his brother-in-law encouraged him to strike out on his own in Mooresville.
So 12 years ago, he left Georgia and began his own restaurant, El Pueblo Grande.
“It means ‘big town’,” he said proudly. “The name honors my parents.”
The restaurant business is in Naranjo’s blood.
“I’ve tried to get out,” he said. “I just can’t seem to do it.”
The restaurant first opened in 2000 in the space most recently occupied by the Prickly Pear on 761 N. Main St. in downtown Mooresville. Two years later, he moved just a block up and a street over and has been there ever since.
“We are in the old part of Mooresville,” he said. “It is part of the community and people can see us from the road.”
The restaurant itself is a study in contrasts, the blending of the old and new. It is small, but has the feeling of space because of an open floor plan and lots of windows. Arches, dreamy pastel colors and suns cuddling with moons on the wall give it old world Mexican flair, but the high ceiling is loft-like with black beams and distressed café colored tiles.
It feels cozy but not cramped; authentically Mexican without a touristy vibe. It is in a unique area that is truly historic, according to Naranjo. Plus, it boasts a nice-sized outdoor patio, which is a big draw.
Naranjo maintains that his success in an ever-growing Mooresville market has to do with consistency and quality of his menu items. Many regulars come weekly to get their favorite dishes. He knows some so well that he can place their order before they give it to the waitress.
The steak ala Mexicana always earns high praise for it’s tender meat and just enough spice. Regulars know they can ask for special items, for example the beef tips in the stuffed poblano peppers, that are not on the menu. He is often scooping his homemade salsa into styrofoam containers for patrons to buy and take home.
Meredith Pena of Mooresville has been eating at El Pueblo Grande since it opened at its current location in 2002. She estimates that she and her husband eat there once a week. She raves about the food, especially the queso fundido appetizer and the carne asada tacos, which she said, taste just like food from street vendors in Mexico. And the homey atmosphere is another reason she is a return customer.
“Over the years, Juan has cultivated real neighborhood feel to his restaurant,” said Pena. “It is not unusual for us to run into a neighbor or someone that we know while eating there.”
Naranjo does not yet have his own empire; right now he is happy running just one restaurant. He likes the flexibility of being his own boss and working his own set schedule. He is in daily contact with his parents; each offering the other advice and empathy about the business.
Naranjo shows a menu from one of his parents’ restaurants. He is using it as a template to add some more dishes to his own menu.
“My parents came to the United States and worked really, really hard,” he said. “I appreciate everything they taught me.”
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