Gaston & Catawba

Impressive menu from an impressive owner

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Rafael Manjarrez, the proud owner of Mt. Holly Mexican Restaurant. While I sat down with him for the purpose of discussing his business so I could tell you about it, I can honestly say that he's one of the most interesting people I've met in quite some time.

But more about that later.

Manjarrez also owns Hispanic food markets in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties. One day he was driving by what had been Gussie's Coffee Shop, when he noticed someone was there. Turns out, it was the building's owner, and before you could say “pass the hot sauce,” he had leased the place and decided to open a restaurant, his first.

In business for the past two years, Mt. Holly Mexican Restaurant is a happy place. Its bright orange walls are trimmed in purple and filled with brightly colored authentic artwork all purchased in Mexico by Manjarrez, who did all the decorating.

“We have a taqueria in one of our stores and a bakery and butcher shop in another, so it was really just an extension of that,” Manjarrez told me, like it's really no big deal to do something you've never done before. But he seems to be like that about everything he's accomplished, and he knew he had a secret weapon: Manager Kathy Castillo.

“There's no way this would be possible without her,” Manjarrez said. Castillo came to North Carolina 10 years ago from Panama, and Manjarrez's was the first family she met here. She's worked for him ever since.

“We have the best food around,” Castillo exclaimed, even after Manjarrez explained that when they first opened the place, she couldn't even cook rice. As controlled and low-key Manjarrez seems, Castillo is just the opposite. She's a bundle of energy and all smiles; it's impossible not to take to her immediately.

“Everything is made fresh every day,” Manjarrez said as we walked through two tiny, immaculate kitchens. “And cleanliness is of utmost importance to us. I always say people could eat off my kitchen floors.”

I didn't eat anything off the floor, but that evening I did enjoy some very tasty fare from the place, and I can tell you that regardless of her culinary skills at the beginning, Castillo can cook.

My husband and I ordered a variety of food from the menu, and none of it disappointed.

The pico de gallo (really just a very fresh salsa) was perfection even though it contained cilantro, which I despise. The tostadas and tacos were equally delicious and fresh-tasting, and the beans and rice were full of flavor and plentiful. My co-diner happily gobbled up his chimichanga, a deep fried flour tortilla filled with cheese and nicely seasoned chicken.

The menu is one you could spend months eating your way through. Appetizers include a variety of nachos starting at $3.35 and guacamole dip for $2.95. “It's the very best guacamole anywhere,” Castillo assured me. I can't vouch for that because they were out of it when we ordered our dinner, but that's a good sign.

Combination platters with three items are available for around $7. Arroz con pollo, their signature entrée, features sliced chicken breast, mushrooms, onions and bell peppers served on a bed of rice with melted Monterey Jack cheese for $8.99. Fajitas run about $10, shrimp quesadillas are $8.99 and vegetarian entrees start at $6.25.

Manjarrez's list of accomplishments is practically as lengthy as his menu – and just as impressive.

Born in Mexico, he became an American citizen at the ripe old age of 18. He graduated with a degree in economics from the State University of New York at Brockport, then went on to work as the manager of the international department at the largest bank in Mexico, Bancomer, before coming back to this country in 1999. At that time, while living in Houston, he began to realize that there was a growing need for businesses catering to Hispanic customers.

“So I called my mom and my brother in Mexico and asked if they wanted to start a business here,” he recalled. Indeed they did, and after an extensive tour of the South, they decided Gastonia would be just the ticket. That was eight years ago, and they're all still here.

But running several successful Hispanic markets wasn't all Manjarrez had on his mind. Always mindful of the needs of Hispanic workers here, he began to work with Citizens South bank on a project called Bodega Bank, which would cater to the specific needs of the Hispanic community, including check cashing, money wiring, utility payments, appliance and other purchases for loved ones back home.

After three years of planning, the banks opened, but Manjarrez's group and Citizens South began having differences and ended their relationship.

That setback didn't deter Manjarrez.

He continued his community-minded efforts by serving on the boards of Gaston's United Way and Chamber of Commerce. Now, in addition to running his stores and the restaurant, he's a regional director for Ria Financial Services, Inc., a company that provides international money transfer services in 85 countries.

To say Rafael Manjarrez is a thinking man would be a vast understatement. He seems to be interested in everything from school uniforms (he's for them) to what he calls the “consumption cycle” we Americans are constantly caught up in.

“There's so much hustle and bustle here,” he said. “In Mexico, if you don't have any money, you don't consume,” he added.

“If you own everything you have, you live a better, happier life.” So it's no wonder he thinks he might retire there. In the meantime, I hope you'll stop by for some good food and to meet this innovative, caring man.

Tell him what you think of his cuisine, then encourage him to stick around.