Impossible dreams do come true. Consider Carlos Haro Jr., owner of Casablanca Mexican restaurant in Venice. As a boy, Haro wanted to become a writer, but his parents said no: Writers don’t make money. So Haro studied law in Guadalajara, where he was born.
“All the time I felt that my career was different from the law,” he says. Casting about for other work, Haro became a basketball coach at the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara, then he came to Los Angeles to study sports administration.
Today, Haro is neither a lawyer nor a coach but a writer, with two novels under his belt and a third in progress. He has also worked his way from bus boy and taco stand manager to proprietor in restaurants established by members of his family.
Do the novels make money? No. “I mostly give them away to schools,” Haro says. He takes the books, which are written in Spanish, to elementary schools, where he stages programs with music and food. “If this person can do it, I can,” is the message he wants students to absorb.
So far he has appeared at schools in East Los Angeles, Bell and Inglewood. “I talk about how important it is to read, to follow your dreams, to stay in school,” he says.
Haro’s second novel, “Tequila,” appeared in May. “Cocula,” his first, came out in 1998. Both interlace absorbing, romantic stories with descriptions of Mexican life and culture, liberally peppered with references to food.
By page 10 in “Tequila,” the reader learns how to marinate huachinango (red snapper) with lime juice, tequila, basil, garlic, salt and white pepper before grilling it. A segment that takes place in a panaderia (bakery) introduces the imaginative names of pan dulce (Mexican sweet breads), among them colchones, cuernos, chamucos, hojaldres, picones, ladrillos and semitas.
A character with a prodigious appetite breakfasts on tamales, tacos, chilaquiles, pan dulce, cookies, hot chocolate, milk and atole, then consumes eggs, refried beans with longaniza, tortillas and coffee. For the afternoon comida, he has cocido (a meat and vegetable stew), pollo a la Valentina (a Guadalajara specialty--chicken with a sauce of tomatoes, onions and mild green chiles combined with fried potatoes), beans and enchiladas with lots of cheese. Supper includes sopes, tacos and tostadas topped with pigs’ feet, followed by flautas with green sauce and cotija cheese, more tacos and, for dessert, arroz con leche, 10 bunuelos and jericalla (a custard similar to flan but without caramel sauce, and steamed rather than baked, then browned on top).
A woman named Jacinta, based on Haro’s mother, takes the reader on a tour of the traditional Mexican kitchen. In town, she encounters charcoal braziers tended by vendors selling pozole, moles, tortilla soup, beans and many other dishes. In another episode, she views an altar loaded with food offerings for the Day of the Dead, including pozole, mole, beans with chorizo, enchiladas, sopes and flautas.
Real-life Mexican celebrities from the past wander in and out of the stories. In “Tequila,” one watches the muralist Jose Clemente Orozco at work in Guadalajara. The film director Emilio Fernandez visits the Hacienda Esmeralda, where the action takes place. Because Fernandez could not tolerate excessive noise, the household help is instructed to remove their shoes and work quietly.
The novel is set in the town of Tequila, which is the center of tequila production in the state of Jalisco. That gives Haro a framework for explaining how tequila is made and how, in some cases, it has deteriorated from a beverage made entirely from agave to agave liquor blended with other liquors and coloring.
The tequila theme fits in with his own interest in the beverage. Casablanca stocks 150 tequilas and is staging a tequila festival. Each Monday night through the end of the year, the restaurant offers a menu of dishes made with tequila.
Haro has developed ceviche marinated with tequila, orange and lime juices; fish marinated with tequila, lime juice, basil and oyster sauce--a dish influenced by Chinese immigrants to Mexico--and shrimp cooked with tequila and the liquid drained from a fresh coconut.
Bunuelos appear in his novel, so he has created a dessert of bunuelos topped with strawberries, whipped cream and a strawberry liqueur that contains tequila.
Haro’s next novel will deal with the state of Veracruz. He writes in longhand, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. “This is the time I have free,” he says. He also writes on the sidelines during catering jobs. “The inspiration is important, but I think the discipline to write is how you make the difference,” he says. “As soon as you start, the ideas come.”
Haro publishes the novels himself and has them printed in Orange County. They are interactive books that contain charts of card games that figure in the stories, cards and photos tucked into envelopes and, in “Cocula,” a Roman Catholic scapular.
An envelope glued to the final page of “Tequila” holds a vintage photograph of a beautiful young woman. The subject was Haro’s grandmother, who inspired the character Emilia in the novel. The book comes packed in a cellophane bag along with a bundle of agave fiber, a tequila glass and a small mirror. You have to read the story to learn the meaning of the mirror. The bag is tied with agave cord.
Haro has always dabbled in writing. From nonpaying freelance work for small publications, he moved on to novels when the recession hurt his business. “I wasn’t sleeping well, so I said to myself, ‘Why don’t you start to write?’ ”
It took two years to finish “Cocula,” which focuses on the origins of mariachi music but also brings in food and tequila. “Some nights I threw away all the papers into the garden,” Haro says. His daughter would retrieve the pages and return them the next day.
“I was insecure,” he says. “With ‘Tequila,’ I have more experience. I did a better job.”