Spicing things up for 25 years

Dining: Spicing things up for 25 years

Spicing things up for 25 years

Authentic Mexican dishes, margaritas a specialty at Fiesta Cafe.

Story: Jodi Heckel

Photos: Robert K. O'Daniell

There wasn’t much in the way of Mexican food in Champaign-Urbana when Ron Haddix broke into the restaurant business here. Haddix had moved to Champaign-Urbana from Michigan and opened Trito’s restaurant in 1977 with some partners. He looked around and saw few Mexican places, compared with where he came from in Michigan.

“I decided I’d try a little Mexican place,” Haddix said.

He opened Fiesta Cafe in January 1988 at 216 S. First St. in Champaign. The restaurant became quite popular and is now celebrating 25 years in business. The menu at first was standard Tex-Mex, Haddix said – lots of chimichangas, burritos and “Taco Bell-style tacos.” But over the years, it has become more authentic Mexican.

Haddix used to travel to Mexico twice a year, and he now goes every couple of years, to try new foods and get menu ideas.
“I ate (Mexican food), but never cooked it much. I had a learning curve there,” he said.

“When I go to Mexico, I go everyplace and I eat everything. I try to get the best ideas I can,” he continued.

Haddix added mole, verde and chipotle sauces, and menu items such as carnitas (or “little meats,” usually a seasoned shredded pork), chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage), roasted pork and fish tacos.
He added milanesa, or breaded steak, about 10 years ago after seeing it on menus when he visited Mexico.

“I’d never had that in any Mexican restaurant, and when I was in Mexico, all the places had it,” he said.

More recently, he added what he calls Alex tacos. The taco recipe came from a restaurant manager, whose uncle is a butcher and made pork tacos. Fiesta already offered beef and chicken tacos, but Haddix added the Alex tacos (named after the uncle and called Tacos Mexicanos on the menu), which have fresh ground pork, salsa and cilantro and are served with cebollitas, or small cooked green onions, and verde sauce.

The menu also includes several varieties of fajitas, egg dishes, steak dishes and standard Mexican food such as tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chile rellenos, tostadas, tamales and sopes.

“We didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas about what things should be,” Haddix said. “We’ve just gone with introducing new dishes and seeing what people liked.”

For example, the refried beans at the restaurant (as well as all the other dishes) are made without lard. One of the partners who opened the restaurant with Haddix was a vegetarian, so the rice and beans that Fiesta serves are vegetarian and many menu items have a vegetarian option.

“Not being Mexican, we didn’t have any pre-conceived notion of what the beans should be. We just tried to make them as good as we can with different spices and without the lard,” Haddix said.
The restaurant is known for having some of the best margaritas in town, and the menu has more than a dozen varieties.

Fiesta Cafe started with just six tables in a small portion of the building it occupies. Haddix remembers the early days when, if there was enough money left on a Friday, he would go to Goodwill and buy another table and some chairs and add them to the restaurant. Fiesta Cafe eventually expanded into the entire building and now seats about 150 people.

He remodeled the outside of the building and added outdoor seating about 10 years ago.

“It looked like a dentist’s office, just a square brick building,” Haddix said. “I wanted to change the appearance.”

The remodeling work left an area between the patio and the parking lot where Haddix and his employees plant tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and cilantro that they use in the restaurant’s dishes.
Many of Fiesta’s employees are longtime employees, with some who’ve been there as long as 20 years – unusual for the restaurant business.

Haddix also has many longtime customers. Among the regulars are families whose children he’s seen grow up, several groups of diners who eat at Fiesta every Friday night and a group of women who gather there every Wednesday night.

“It’s the people that make the business,” Haddix said. “We have so many regular customers. That’s what makes it enjoyable.”