Jesus Enríquez started cooking after his mother died when he was a little boy.
In the beginning, it was just the basics: Putting salt in the beans as they simmered on the stove or making eggs for his two brothers.
“We grew up in the kitchen,” Enríquez said.
Today, he owns and operates El Matador Mexican Restaurant on Shaw Avenue, where the cuisine reaches far beyond the basics. The menu includes authentic Mexican breakfasts (one features cactus and eggs) as well as seafood dishes with shrimp, crab or red snapper.
Many of the offerings at El Matador are listed on the menu in Spanish, such as Pescado Veracruzano — red snapper served with sauteed vegetables — but the menu also lists key ingredients in English and shows a photo of each dish.
That approach adds to the air of authenticity at El Matador, but also is customer friendly.
Some other seafood dishes are:
▪ Camarones al Mojo de Ajo — shrimp cooked in garlic butter.
▪ Camarones Empanizados — breaded shrimp.
▪ Combinación de Camarón — shrimp and crab cooked in garlic butter.
Prices on the seafood dishes range from $10.95 (shrimp cocktail or tostada with imitation crab) to $16.95 (the shrimp/crab combination).
A number of Mexican dinners also are on the menu. They include standard offerings such as Chile Verde, Chiles Rellenos and Enchiladas de Mole. Some of the more unique offerings are:
▪ Picadillo — ground beef, raisins, olives and chipotle sauce.
▪ Tinga — ground beef or ground chicken with a special spicy sauce.
▪ Pechugas en Almendra — chicken in almond sauce.
The dinners — served with soup or salad, rice and beans — range in price from $10.95 (chile relleno) to $14.95 (shrimp in white sauce).
Enríquez’s favorite dish is chicken in raspberry sauce. “If you see it on someone else’s menu, they copied it from me,” he said, laughing. “It’s not a traditional Mexican dish, but I like it.” The combination of raspberry and chipotle makes it both sweet and spicy.
Breakfast offerings — available all day at $8.95 or $9.95 — are a return to the traditional. Some of those items are Nopales con Huevo (cactus with eggs) and Machaca con Huevo (shredded beef with eggs).
When Enríquez and his wife, Alfie Catalán, opened El Matador in 1989, they had backgrounds in restaurant work. When Enríquez came to Fresno in 1980, he started as a dishwasher and worked his way into cooking at a Mexican restaurant. He said he was grateful for the job: “Whether it was raining or hot or cold outside, I was inside.”
Catalan worked as a cook at another Mexican restaurant. For nearly a decade, the couple planned the details of their business, and then they learned that owning a restaurant is all-consuming.
“The restaurant business is 28 hours a day,” Enríquez said. “You try to sleep and you’re still thinking about work, and you wake up in the morning and you’re still working. But it’s good to have your own business.”
He believes several factors have contributed to the restaurant’s success. First, it’s a family operation, which reduces expenses. Enrique’s son, Antonio, has taken over most of the cooking, and his niece, Areli Almanza, works as a server.
Secondly, Enríquez said, he looks for bargains while shopping for groceries but doesn’t skimp on quality or essentials, even if prices go up. For example, he didn’t stop buying avocados for guacamole when they were more than $2 apiece.
One interesting note is how the restaurant came to be called El Matador. Originally, Enríquez filed paperwork to open with another name. But, another restaurant already had that name, although it wasn’t listed in the phonebook or other sources that Enríquez checked. (This was before the internet was widely used.)
Forced to choose a new name, Enríquez went with his bookkeeper’s suggestion, though he wondered at first whether El Matador sounded more Spanish than Mexican.
Today, he’s happy with the name. “It’s easy to remember and interesting,” he said.
An image of the famous Spanish bullfighter Manolete dueling with a bull is depicted in a painting at the restaurant, and the image also is on the cover of the menus. Enríquez watched matadors perform when he was young and living in Mexico.
“I wasn’t a real fan, but it was an artistic show,” he said.
El Matador is at 2141 Shaw Ave., No. 101, near Armstrong Avenue. The restaurant’s phone number is (559) 298-3403, and it’s on Facebook. Hours are Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sunday.