Tito Munoz says Mexican food helped him achieve the American dream.
Six years ago, the father of five lost his job running a local Claim Jumper restaurant. But instead of going back into the American food business, he decided to take a chance on something he had always wanted to do — open a Mexican restaurant.
Now Munoz, 62, is the owner of the successful Sabroso! Mexican Grill in Garden Grove, which sells dishes based on family recipes passed down for generations.
"We're an example of the American dream," said Munoz's daughter, Paloma Son, who helps him manage the restaurant. "We came in with little money and no investors — just our savings — to make our father's dream come true. The only thing we were certain of was my dad's passion for food and his sazon, his flavor."
Food has long been Munoz's passion.
"I always liked to play with the spices," said Munoz, who has trouble speaking after a stroke in November.
"Growing up, my dad was the chef at home," Son said. "He was always very inventive and creative in the kitchen. He would sometimes mix American and Mexican foods, but most of his recipes were the ones that came from Mexico, that were taught to him by his mother, which she learned from his grandmother."
Munoz emigrated from Guerrero, Mexico, in 1974, and now lives in Santa Ana.
"A lot of the recipes we have on the menu are inspired by things he would cook at home. Chamorro has become one of our top selling specialty items, and that's a dish we remember eating once or twice a month at home."
Just as the menu draws upon family traditions, so is the restaurant a family affair.
Sabroso opened after Munoz and his children pooled their savings and everyone agreed to work in the restaurant. Munoz became the head chef, his son the sous chef, his four daughters servers and his wife the "tortilla lady."
"Our first year, we had very little sales," Son said. "We started from the bottom. It wasn't a brand that had some recognition. We truly had to sell ourselves to every customer. But everyone who tried the food left extremely satisfied. Our food speaks for itself."
Son explained that unlike other many Mexican restaurants in the area, Sabroso takes care to use only fresh, high-quality ingredients. Nothing ever comes from a can, and every dish is handcrafted in the kitchen. Even the tortillas are made from scratch.
"People can taste the freshness, and that's why they continue to come back," she said.
Sabroso's extensive menu includes Mexican classics such as tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, chile verde, carne asada, agua fresca and horchata.
But it also includes nontraditional fare. After a vegetarian customer requested more meat-free options, Sabroso developed a deep-fried avocado taco that Son said is now one of Sabroso's tastiest dishes.
Tacos cost around $4 each; burritos range from $8.50 to $11; and entrée platters, which are served with tortillas and rice and beans, are priced near $15.
For Munoz, it's also the passion he puts into each dish that separates Sabroso from the competition.
"Whatever I cook, I put in all my love," he said.
"Our hearts explode with joy every time we serve our food," Son said, "because we know that our family legacy will always live on. We know that our history, our culture, our parents will always be with us, even after they're gone."
Now that Sabroso has established itself as a staple in Orange County cuisine — it boasts 4.5 stars and more than 1,300 reviews on Yelp and was featured on the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" — the Munozes are looking to expand.
In March, the restaurant will open a second location a few doors down that will be devoted to take-out and catering.
"Our kitchen is small and everything is handmade, so we needed an extra kitchen," Son said. The family also hopes to eventually open sites in other cities.
But beyond the business, Son said she hopes Sabroso will motivate families like hers.
"We want to inspire other people like us, who are middle-class people but don't have a lot of money or investors," Son said. "We want to inspire them to believe in themselves. If they have something great to share, by working hard and coming together as a family you can persevere and make that dream a reality."