Nosh Pit

Nosh Pit: Caballo Blanco ponders a future without its patriarch

Imagine a time when Caballo Blanco no longer anchors the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Fruitridge Road. No more complimentary caldito soup. No more baskets of deep-fried chips to serve as a welcome. No more Mexican meals from the Unzueta family.

The notion almost sounds like a bit of south Sacramento sacrilege. Caballo Blanco has been in business for 53 years, a staple of Mexican food in Sacramento since John F. Kennedy served as president.

The restaurant is now without its patriarch and founder. Miguel Unzueta, who opened Caballo Blanco in 1961, died on Sept. 12 after a fall in his Elk Grove home. He was 88 years old, about two weeks shy of his 89th birthday.

Señor Unzueta retired from running the restaurant in the mid-1980s, leaving two sons, Ruben and Roy, to oversee its operations. But the elder Unzueta remained a regular presence, a guiding force of sorts, who liked to read and chat with longtime customers from his favorite booth near the front door.

Ruben Unzueta took a rest in the same booth on Monday, just two days after his father’s funeral. The lunch rush had subsided and the dining room still felt festive as “Guajira” by Santana played over the sound system and plates clanked in the nearby kitchen. Out in the hallway, cards of condolences from customers were posted on a wall.

“I know why he liked this spot,” said Unzueta, still sporting a blue work apron. “You could see everything from here. He would come to visit and sit right here where I’m at.”

Though the family mourns its loss, the work continues. But for how much longer?

Unzueta still works in Caballo Blanco’s kitchen, tasting constantly to make sure the recipes are coming out right, and especially likes prepping for large parties. But he’s 64 now, long past the expiration date for a line cook, and plans to retire from the kitchen by year’s end to play a more supervisory role.

“In my mind, I’m retired,” said Unzueta. “But my body still comes to work.”

Roy Unzueta is 62 and has worked at Caballo Blanco since he was 8, starting as a dishwasher. His son, Ulysses, has worked at Caballo Blanco as a cook and keeper of recipes while also developing a career in art. Roy’s daughter, Urmila, is a server at the restaurant.

But it’s not certain that this third generation wants to run Caballo Blanco once their parents retire.

“They do, they don’t, they’re confused,” said Roy Unzueta, who dropped by the booth. “They want to take classes and study whatever they want. But we all went through that. I went through that. My brother went through that. But we’ve still stayed here. Someone’s got to hold the fort down.”

The two brothers know well the grind it takes to run a restaurant. A love of cooking and Mexican food isn’t enough. Success also means being prudent in terms of finances, keeping up with the competition and working constantly on your feet.

“We just know we have to come to work every day, and that’s it,” said Ruben Unzueta. “You’re achy and complaining, but you’re here. There’s always one of us here.”

Ruben Unzueta has mixed feelings about whether his kids should have to carry on Caballo Blanco. On one hand, he wants the family’s restaurant legacy to continue. But he also doesn’t want to put a ceiling on their dreams. He’s encouraged son Ruben Jr. to work outside the family business; he currently cooks at the Natural Foods Co-Op in Davis.

“I wanted him to get out and see what the world is like,” said Unzueta. “I don’t want him to get stuck here like we did. But they get out and pick up ideas and understand what it is like to work for other people. When they come back here, maybe they appreciate the business more.”

The family has taken little time off since Miguel Unzueta died. Caballo Blanco was closed on the day of his death and for the Sept. 20 funeral. But since then, the restaurant has continued as usual, with the complimentary caldito soup on a well-traveled corner of south Sacramento.

“As long as we’re here, we’ll still have the restaurant,” said Ruben Unzueta. “Who knows what happens once we’re out. Time will tell.”