Food & Drink

Sacramento’s Centro Cocina Mexicana celebrates its 20th anniversary

Centro Cocina Mexicana opened 20 years ago at the corner of 28th and J streets, and the experience was a bit of culture shock for some Sacramento diners. Unlike the usual taco spot, this Mexican restaurant actually charged for chips and salsa. And its chef-owner, Kurt Spataro, sounded like the name of someone running an Italian spot, not a Mexican eatery.

But Spataro, an executive chef with the Paragary Restaurant Group, was well-versed in the finer points of Mexican cooking. He wanted to bring a more progressive approach to Mexican food for Sacramento, not just serve up the same ol’ enchiladas and refried beans.

Now a fiesta runs through Sunday as Centro celebrates its 20th anniversary. Alumni, including bartending favorite Chris Tucker, and others will drop by for guest shifts. The festivities also include $5 margaritas, tableside guacamole service and a special anniversary menu.

On the eve of Centro’s 20th birthday party, we asked Spataro to reflect on his restaurant’s past and present. Here’s what he had to say:

Let’s rewind 20 years. Why did you initially want to open a Mexican restaurant?

I’d started traveling to Mexico every year from about 1991 to 1996, and my first trip was to Oaxaca. I’d picked up Diana Kennedy’s “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” and become aware of these culinary tours through Mexico with Diana Kennedy. With each subsequent trip, I got more and more into it. Without much discussion or planning, Randy Paragary and Doyle Bailie – our partner at the time – they thought, “Kurt’s been going to Mexico all this time, so maybe a Mexican restaurant is a good idea. Everyone loves margaritas.” Then, the space became available.

How was Diana Kennedy as a teacher? Did she run a tight ship, or was it about just cooking and having a good time?

She doesn’t fool around. She doesn’t like a lot of talking. You sit there and pay attention. If she wants you to do something or help, you just do it.

I remember that first class in Oaxaca, I had shoulder-length hair, or longer. I was sitting there in front of the demonstration table and she said, “OK, you people with long hair. Get it tied back and get it neat.”

From all those culinary travels in Mexico, what dishes did you bring to Centro?

I thought we really had to do cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), Oaxacan style mole negro, Veracruz-styled fish, and of course, simple things like guacamole. I was sort of plucking classics from around the regions I’d been visiting.

Sacramento’s never had a shortage of Mexican restaurants. How did you want Centro to differentiate itself from, say, the old Luis’s on Alahambra Boulevard, Caballo Blanco and the other family-style places?

Mexican restaurants at that time were mostly doing combination plates. Every Mexican place was pretty much the same with that Mexican-American thing of chile rellenos, or enchiladas served with iceberg lettuce salad and red rice, and refried pinto beans. That’s just what it was.

We decided we weren’t going to do combination plates, but regional specialties. Every plate was not going to get garnished with the same thing. It will have garnishments that are appropriate for the dish. We were making tortillas and tamales with fresh masa. Nobody was doing those things. We also want to treat the bar differently. We weren’t going to use sweet and sour (mix) and pasteurized lime juice. We wanted to make as good a margarita as you’d find in Mexico.

What was really kind of crazy at the time was charging for chips. We didn’t give them away.

Did you get some pushback about charging for the chips?

Yeah, there was pushback. That was probably the biggest thing we heard: “What kind of Mexican restaurant makes you (pay) for chips?” We stuck to our guns. We thought we were making good salsas with good ingredients and there’s a cost to it. Instead of building the cost into the plate, we’d charge a nominal fee. After a year people seemed to settle in.

Fruit-infused spirits have become fairly popular recently, but Centro’s done this for many years with its tequilas. How did this develop?

It might’ve been our 10th anniversary when we came up with an “anniversary infusion” (of tequila) with strawberry, pineapple and kiwi and mango. People really seemed to enjoy that, and it evolved from there. About three years ago, our general manager and I started talking and said, “Hey, let’s try to push this and get serious.” There’s very few things we haven’t tried. You can go down on a Friday night and there might be eight to 10 infusions.

But wasn’t it illegal for bars to infuse their own spirits until a few years ago?

Yes. The liquor companies didn’t want you to do that. They wanted to sell you mango-flavored vodka or whatever. We just kind of laid low. When the law changed (in 2011), we got serious.

Street foods have become all the rage recently, and the mom-and-pop taquerias seem to get the most buzz in terms of Mexican food. How do you think Centro fits in with the Mexican restaurant landscape in 2014?

(Street food) has had an influence and that will continue. I’m definitely inspired by it. But almost any kind of taco is street food. It’s something where the tortilla is the plate, and it’s hand-to-mouth food. I consider what we do is essentially street food in a sit-down restaurant.

I think cuisine evolves, and there’s so many things happening that it’s good for the customers and chefs to keep moving forward. We’re always trying to incorporate more local and seasonal things and be part of the farm-to-fork movement.

How do you look back on these last 20 years of Centro overall, and where is the restaurant headed?

A 20-year-old restaurant has an ebb and flow. It’s like a 20-year marriage. You have ups and downs, and outside forces can impact you in different ways. But you grow, as owners and chefs and restaurateurs.

Twenty years later, I think we have a renewed excitement and interest and passion for the restaurant. I’m super-excited and looking forward to what’s ahead.