Why would a young, healthy finance graduate of California State University-San Marcos leave a prestigious and lucrative job in the world of Southern California banking to run a restaurant in Ralston?
For Michael Sanchez, a more appropriate question was, “How can I not do this?”
In 2008, his grandmother Maria Sanchez, the woman he calls “my everything” and the namesake of the legendary Maria’s Mexican Restaurant, needed his help. Michael’s grandfather, Patrick, had died some years before. Maria was determined to carry on and manage a business they had started together in 1976. But when Maria turned 70, she knew the years were catching up with her.
“Michael is like my husband because he’s really into the business side of the restaurant,” Maria says. Michael’s grandfather grew up in Colorado and was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base when he married Maria in 1959. While the couple lived overseas in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Patrick set up a Mexican food cart on base during the weekends. The food cart was a hit with fellow service families. It eventually inspired their restaurant.
Maria practically raised Michael from the time he was a baby. “He’s a creator,” she says, acknowledging the grandson inherited her husband’s financial acumen. “I told him, ‘Come home, Michael. We’d love to have you.’”
“It took a lot of planning, mostly over the phone, to make the arrangements for me to come back [as majority owner and operator],” says Michael, 35. “Because she’s so passionate and wants the best for her business and her employees, I think she wanted to advance the business, but she just didn’t have the wherewithal.”
Michael knew exactly how to advance the family business when he returned to Ralston. His vision coincided with the same thing customers had been telling his grandmother for years: Maria’s didn’t have enough space.
A remodel and expansion job began immediately on the Burlington Street restaurant in the heart of Ralston. Michael added a party room and doubled the seating capacity. Ten years later, the growing popularity of Maria’s signature fried puffy tacos taxes the new floor plan.
“Even now that we’ve expanded, it’s a long wait sometimes,” says Maria, in what may be the understatement of the year. Patrons congregate outside the restaurant before the doors open.
After unleashing his inner entrepreneur, Michael embarked on a creative and professional tear.
Over the past decade the Creighton Prep product has added a satellite Maria’s Mexican Restaurant inside the Ralston Arena, created the sensational Mula in Omaha’s hip Blackstone District, developed a new taco eatery in Benson, drawn up plans for a fast-casual dining experience, earned a graduate degree in business from Creighton University (completed in one year), and won a seat on the Ralston City Council. In addition, he helps raise two sons, ages 12 and 9.
Michael grew up at Maria’s (“My crib was in the back office of the restaurant,” he says) and can perform every job within his businesses. Although he prefers working outside the kitchen, his vast knowledge of Mexican food has paid dividends in his business ventures.
“Living in California and traveling often to Mexico opened my eyes to how many varieties of Mexican food there are,” he says. “Omaha-style Mexican is very similar to Maria’s, which has a heavy Texas influence. It’s all about sauces, cheese, and beans.”
The Tex-Mex influence comes naturally to Maria. “My mother was raised in Texas,” she says. “We use her recipes. We’ve used them from the beginning, when Patrick cooked.”
As he conceptualized a culinary creation of his own, Michael strived to bridge the gap between Americanized Mexican food and the traditional fare immigrant families dish up along Omaha’s South 24th Street—fare similar to the street food made-to-order from vendor carts on Mexican street corners.
He chose to establish Mula (Spanish for mule) at 40th and Farnam streets because he felt the community would travel there to sample his contemporary version of Mexican street food. The location struck gold.
“When we moved here to the Blackstone District in 2014, there was nothing around, I mean nothing,” Michael says with a touch of awe. “Now it’s become the hottest part of the city.”
Relying on social media and word-of-mouth, Mula found its footing within a year and exceeded expectations.
The décor reflects the Old World, with statues and icons of the Virgin Mary and colorful votive candles with images of saints lined across the back bar. Hundreds of bottles of tequila rest on rustic bookshelves, giving credence to Mula’s billing as a “Mexican Kitchen and Tequileria.”
Diners experience flavors outside the realm of taco seasoning, with fresh red cabbage, chile crema, a splash of citrus, and “a hint of vanilla” integrated into some of the offerings. Unlike many Mexican restaurants, portions at Mula don’t rival the size of houseboats, although the tortas, Mexican sandwiches stuffed with meat, can easily feed two.
With Mula running smoothly, Michael turned to a simpler concept and a new restaurant debuting this summer: Taco Co. at 61st and Maple streets in Benson, a margarita garden that pays homage to his grandmother.
“We serve nothing but margaritas and her fried puffy tacos,” he says, referring to the pita bread-like quality of the taco shell. “We also have finger food, salsa, and guac.”
Always one to stay up on trends in the business, Michael and his trusty culinary director, chef Kyle Lamb, have an idea for a line of fast-casual restaurants. “Counter service, not full service, is the largest growing segment,” he says matter-of-factly.
While Michael plans for the future, his beloved grandmother, whose smooth skin and bright smile belie her age, basks in the goodwill bestowed on her at the restaurant. As she welcomes third- and fourth-generation customers to Maria’s, she takes comfort knowing her family’s culinary legacy will continue for years to come.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.