Torero’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine
800 W. Main St., Durham | torerosmexicanrestaurants.com
A year ago last week, a gas leak in Durham’s Brightleaf Square exploded, killing two, injuring 25, and damaging 15 businesses while leveling a city block. It’s taken a year for Torero’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine, nestled at the corner of Main Street and North Duke Street, to be ready to reopen. There were countless inspections, building delays, and finally, an opening date—late April or early May.
And then came the coronavirus, which leveled the entire restaurant industry at large.
“We’ve wanted to open since the end of last year,” says Torero’s co-owner Emmanuel Martinez. “But there was still work to do, repairs inside, and we couldn’t. After that, the coronavirus came. We still want to reopen because we love to serve customers and the community. And we also have to pay bills, to pay rent.”
The Durham Torero’s, which represents one-sixth of the Triangle restaurant chain, has been open since 1994.
If you stepped inside prior to April 2019, you’d find a clay-red interior brightly speckled with murals. The menu, which boasts that it’s the “best Mexican cuisine in Durham,” was filled with generously portioned traditional dishes. Heaping plates of yellow rice and refried beans. Fajitas swimming in sauce. A whole fish fried with salt and lemon. For $10.99, you could get toasted on a pitcher of margaritas. It was a community spot and, for Durham’s Hispanic community, something like a second home.
A year after its closing, Martinez says he can still spot a regular and remember their order.
“There’s a Hispanic atmosphere around,” he says. “I like the restaurant, I like how we work.”
Martinez was in Torero’s, alongside five employees, when a contractor around the corner struck a gas line on April 10, 2019, while boring into the sidewalk. Martinez was preparing to write a check, he recalls, when a firefighter came in and the explosion detonated. It could be heard for miles around. No one on staff was injured, but the damage was considerable: The ceiling ruptured, the windows shattered, and the building was ultimately condemned.
And so Martinez, alongside co-owners Jose Arias and Francisco Equihua, began a year-long journey of rebuilding what they had lost. In January, neighboring restaurant Saint James Seafood—which had also been condemned—was able to reopen, backed by an outpouring of community support.
Torero’s was preparing to follow suit when Governor Cooper announced that all dine-in restaurants had to close on March 17. The first week after the news broke, a wave of fundraisers swept the community, as people rallied to support service workers, many of whom are uninsured and underpaid. Many area restaurants pivoted immediately to takeout and delivery, although this model—championed nationwide as a way to keep local economies afloat—is not without fault lines.
For one, takeout still puts restaurant workers, both those making the food and those delivering it, at risk of exposure. Modifying the menu has its complications. Delivery containers, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, are in short supply. Most of all, it is difficult to make the operating costs balance out the profit.
Next door, Saint James opted not to experiment with takeout.
Restaurant analysts predict that 75 percent of independently owned restaurants will not survive the coronavirus closure. This is a bleak forecast for the food and service industry and, in particular, for restaurants like Torero’s—colorful community gathering spaces already operating on a tight margin. In The New York Times, the restaurateur David Chang put it bluntly: “Without government intervention, there will be no service industry.”
Still, Martinez says that he is hopeful that Torero’s can pull through. Opening the restaurant is an act of faith. He has been at Torero’s for the long haul: He began work as a waiter at a different location in 2007 and worked there until 2016 when he joined the restaurant as an owner.
Martinez says he hopes to rehire most of the original staff that the restaurant had last April, and he feels optimistic about community turnout. He plans to open with a takeout menu and operate that way until restaurants are allowed to open their doors for sit-down meals.
“We have regular customers that ordered takeout,” Martinez says. “Some that have been there for 25 years. They know the menu, they know how it works. We feel confident that we’re going to have customers.”
Since the explosion, the outpouring of support has been tremendous. Most people write the restaurant to express a simple message: They love Torero’s and can’t wait to come back and sit in one of the colorful booths. Others ask for recipes; they want to recreate Torero’s meals at home. When the restaurant first posted, back in September, that it would open in the spring, the post was greeted with a flood of likes and comments.
“Good news,” wrote one commenter, “that the corner will be alive again!”
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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