(Sara Brown for Boston.com)
A few months ago, Julie King thought she was going to have to vacate her popular, if unusual, restaurant space—a gas station convenience store on Beacon Hill—and start fresh in a new neighborhood, leaving behind customers who became friends.
Now, King has announced a reprieve: Villa Mexico, her restaurant, has found a potential new home in Beacon Hill, an area King thought would be too expensive. While she’s leaving behind the gas station set-up, she’ll in a neighborhood she said has embraced her and her daughter.
For the last five years, King has operated her take-out restaurant at 296 Cambridge Street, sharing a spot with a gas station convenience store. She said she offers “good service, fresh food, all from scratch,” and the wall behind the counter is decorated with a thank you notes, a Mexican flag, and pictures of friends and customers—King said the two are one and the same.
Though Villa Mexico found loyal customers at the location, it wasn't perfect, King said, recalling times when the lights or electricity wouldn't work or the freezers went out, spoiling $4,000 worth of good food, she said. In July, her phone service was unexpectedly severed, requiring her to use her cell phone to take orders from customers.
After these problems, she said, she received an eviction notice--the property owners plan to redevelop the space, with King asked to leave by September 1--and then, after a reprieve, by the end of 2011. After thinking she would have almost a year to save money to move to a new place, she said, the restaurant faced sudden closure. The search was on for a new location, with notices to customers and a Kickstarter campaign for fundraising.
On Thursday, though, King announced to customers that with "several angels to guide us in our search," a new location was found: a redeveloped retail space at 12 Grove Street.
A Beacon Hill couple, "Wilson angels," bought the Grove Street building and put together an "incredible proposition" for Villa Mexico, the announcement said. However, the restaurant will require a new zoning permit to allow take-out food service. If the restaurant gets approval, King said, they could move in to the former barber shop in January 2012.
This is welcome news to King, who lamented having to leave Beacon Hill. "People like our food, she said, and "they like us as a family, me and my daughter."
"People from the hospital come and tell me the stories," she said in August. "It's been such a wonderful five years--god blessed me with this place."
King, a former lawyer who grew up in Mexico, started cooking for her husband, a US Navy Officer. Cooking wasn't a natural career for her, she said, recalling her mother saying "'you cannot even fry egg! What are you doing to do?'"
But when she cooked for her husband and family friends, "that's when I realized I liked to cook. My friends and my husband used to like my food," she said.
After her husband passed away, King said, she thought "I'm going to teach everybody what is authentic Mexican food."
She opened her first restaurant in Woburn in 1999, and it quickly grew from five to 10 tables. The customers became friends, she said, and it was "a big party." That restaurant closed in 2003, and the current Villa Mexico opened in 2006.
The restaurant memorabilia collection includes a photo of King’s daughter, Bessie, 26, in a graduation gown. A graduate of Northeastern—where she studied communication and journalism—and Columbia University Journalism school, Bessie helps her mother behind the counter, and manages the restaurant’s social media accounts.
While King lives in Stoneham, the restaurant is "like my house, my dear," she said, saying that her customers are like family. They sing happy birthday to celebrate birthdays, she recalled, and she gives a little something to new babies that arrive.
She calls customers and guests "my friend," and participates in the community, including teaching Advent School students how to cook Mexican dishes. She also has her "fan club," kids she met when the store first opened, or kids whose mothers came to the store when they were pregnant. Now some of these children are four or five, King said, and she proudly displays their artwork in the restaurant.
With a new location, King is also branching out in other ways, including online salsa sales. King said she ships jars of homemade salsa, like the popular guaca salsa, which has avocado in it, to California, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
King is optimistic about the restaurant's continued success. "If I can make it in a gas station, I can make it in another place," she said.