Mexico-native restaurateurs serve up a taste of home
Oswaldo Cano, Osbaldo "Ozzy" Rojas and Rene Vasquez didn't have an elaborate grand opening for their new restaurant, Conin Mexican Cuisine.
"We just opened one day and invited some friends, and after that people started coming," Cano recalls of opening the doors to Conin in late December 2016.
That organic opening mirrors the laid-back vibes of their Southwest Barber Boulevard storefront.
Cano and Vasquez are brothers, and Rojas has known them since childhood. They all grew up in Cadereyta in the small, central Mexican state of Queretaro, northwest of Mexico City. Though they've lived in the western U.S. for more than a quarter of a century, their menu is filled with memories of their hometown.
They're specifically honoring Cano and Vasquez's grandmother, Maria Luz, who cooked for the community.
"Usually in Mexico, what they do is they put a stand outdoors or they go to the farmers market or the plaza after church, so they sell to the community," Cano, the more soft-spoken partner, explains. "So (Maria Luz was) one of the first people to start selling this kind of food — the gorditas and the Enchiladas Queretanas, what we call them."
Cano has been working in restaurants since he came to the U.S. 25 years ago, working his way up from dishwasher to server and then to bartender. With his industry knowledge, Rojas' vision and Vasquez's culinary skills, the idea of Conin came alive.
"We're trying to be different from everyone else," Cano says.
Rojas, who has lived in the Portland region for 26 years, is the more effusive of the co-owners. He says that though customers may not experience what they're accustomed to finding at other Mexican restaurants, Conin actually stays truer to Mexican culture and cuisine.
He describes the restaurant's decor, for example, as modern and understated, yet sprinkled with Mexican cultural references. Portraits of icons like Frida Kahlo hang on the walls, which are otherwise sparse but for a painting of the restaurant's titular Conin, a native Mexican who helped the Spaniards conquer the territory of Queretaro in the 16th century.
"Our presentation is more contemporary, the restaurant is more contemporary, because Mexico has the same thing — contemporary, formal, casual, everything," Rojas says.
Cano and Rojas say people are often surprised by their unique menu options.
One such item is their signature Carne Apache dish, which Rojas describes as "like ceviche but with ground beef," served like a tostada and cured with lemon. Another surprising menu option, the Tlacoyos de Huitlacoche, showcases an ingredient that Cano remembers harvesting as a child.
"This mushroom (Huitlacoche), it grows on the corn...it looks really weird on the corn. People say, 'Oh, should I eat it?' because it looks really bad, but it's really good," Cano says. "That's how we grew up in Mexico. I remember my great-grandmother taking me to the (farm), she used to take me over and I used to see them and she used to cut them."
Cano and Rojas hope potential customers will embrace their departure from typical Mexican dining in the U.S. and that they'll keep an open mind.
"I just want them to know that we're not the same Mexican restaurant, because we see reviews that people are expecting the same thing other restaurants sell," Cano says. "We have another option. It's not just like everyone else."
IF YOU GO
Conin Mexican Cuisine
WHERE: 9111 S.W. Barbur Blvd, Portland
HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.