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When Manuel and Engracia Diaz opened El Tapatio restaurant in Guadalupe in 1988, the husband-and-wife restaurateurs offered a distinct service from the start: authentic Mexican dishes as memorable as the staff who prepared them.

Twenty-six years later, that union of authenticity and delight endures, and the newer Diaz generation says it’s what keeps their patrons coming back.

Edubey Diaz, son of Manuel and Engracia, is one of El Tapatio’s chefs. He said he enjoys his work because he loves cooking, but also because he likes creating an atmosphere in which Guadalupe residents and visitors share laughs between bites.

“I also enjoy the atmosphere — talking to the client and customer and making them feel that they are at home, whether I know them or not,” Diaz said.

The 36-year-old started cooking in 2009; his mother and father’s urging prompted him to become more serious about the endeavor. Now, Diaz counts himself blessed to have had their instruction.

“It took four years,” he said. “I’m a quick learner and I love it.”

Diaz officially became an El Tapatio chef in 2010, on the heels of the restaurant building’s earthquake retrofitting.

Today, he works alongside his mother, father and brothers in the kitchen, preparing everything from fresh, made-to-order tortillas and enchiladas to combination meals and Chile Rellenos; the latter is the restaurant’s most popular dish.

Every guest receives complimentary chips and salsa, which includes bean dip with a chili verde sauce unique to Tapatio.

“And that’s what a lot of people talk about,” said Noemi Diaz, Edubey’s wife. “They say, ‘ ... We already get some of the flavor before we even order your food.”

That authentic flavor has emerged as one of the restaurant’s hallmarks. The cooks season everything, from the platters down to the free chips.

“You go to some Mexican restaurants and the rice tastes the same; the chips taste the same. They don’t have that flavor,” said Noemi, who plans to join the El Tapatio staff at some point in the future. “We want to show (customers) that there is something outside the box. It’s not going to be your typical Mexican restaurant.”

The duo stresses customer service as much as they do the meal preparation.

“Basically, I stand here and I serve them and I’m getting their orders out, but I still have a relationship with them. They come back and they remember; and I remember their name and they love it,” Noemi said.

Although the occasional local breezes through El Tapatio’s doors, most of the restaurant’s customers are out-of-towners who travel Highway 1 from as close as San Luis Obispo County and as far away as Los Angeles. Tourists visiting the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are also common, and the Diazes have developed a reciprocal relationship with the Nipomo-Dunes Center staff.

“The Dunes Center has been very helpful,” Edubey said. “When they have events, I donate chips and salsa. They return the favor by sending customers.”

Looking ahead, the Diazes plan to expand their business, giving people across the Santa Maria Valley a chance to taste their authentic Mexican food and to show that the local talent and potential exists to offer it.

“... We want to show that there is something good in Guadalupe,” Noemi said.

Of all El Tapatio’s dishes, Chile Rellenos is their most popular. Here’s the recipe (secret sauce not included) for a family of four:

Chile Rellenos

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Ingredients

4 pasilla chiles

1 lb. cheese (your choice)

3 eggs

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 c. oil

For the sauce

4 tomatoes, halved

1 c. water

½ onion, peeled and chopped

¼ c. oil

1 tsp. all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. chopped seasoning of your choice

2 jalapenos, chopped

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Instructions

Heat grill to medium.

Grill and char the chiles on both sides. Once blackened put in a plastic bag for 10 minutes to sweat out any moisture.

Remove from the bag, slit them down the middle, remove the seeds and the layer of skin from the top.

Cut the cheese into several squares.

Stuff the peppers with the cheese.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

Add the egg whites to a large bowl. Reserve the egg yolks. Beat the egg whites with an electric beater until the whites become fluffy.

Add in the flour and the egg yolks and mix until completely incorporated.

Add the oil to a frying pan over medium heat. Dip the stuffed peppers into the batter and fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove from the oil to a serving platter.

Tomato sauce

Add the tomatoes and water to a small pot over medium heat. Simmer the tomatoes until soft and stir in the chopped onion and jalapenos.

Add the 1⁄4 cup of oil to a frying pan, over low heat, and stir in the flour to mix.

Cook the flour until browned.

Add the tomato sauce.

Simmer for five minutes and then add the seasoning of your choice.

Pour the tomato sauce (and additional cheese on top, if you prefer) over the cooked chile rellenos on a platter and serve.

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Eating Central is a bi-weekly dinning column that appears every other Sunday in the Santa Maria Times. You can reach the author for tips, suggestions or just to drop a line at (805) 739-2205 or jharper@santamariatimes.com.

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