Family-friendly setting key for customers, staff at Mexican restaurant
There have been plenty of long days and no job is beneath him, but Luis Calix is quick to say that being the owner of Lobo’s Place, a new Mexican restaurant in downtown Grafton, is a dream come true.
“Owning my own restaurant has been my dream for a long time,” Calix said.
“I have worked hard and saved my money to get where I am, but the need to succeed is not about me — it is about being able to provide for my family and all the people who depend on me.”
Calix said his wife and children often help at the restaurant, as do his nephew, nieces, uncle, aunt and brother-in-law.
“It is a real family restaurant,” he joked.
Lobo’s Place, 1305 Wisconsin Ave., moved into the former Grafton Family Restaurant earlier this summer.
Anyone who visits the popular dining spot might have a hard time believing it is the same place.
“When I first visited the building, it seemed really dark. When we moved in, the first thing we did was paint the walls to brighten things up and make it more colorful,” Calix said.
Two “windows” were also knocked into a wall to make the dining area feel more connected to the adjacent bar.
More spacious than it looks from the outside, the restaurant can seat between 180 and 200 people. Patio seating adds room for another 20 people, and Calix has applied for permission to expand the outdoor dining to the plaza in front of the building.
“The patio has been really popular. Even when it is raining, people like to sit under the roof and watch the action outside,” he said.
Calix said he chose Grafton as the site of his restaurant, because he learned that a lot of the customers he met while working at various restaurants came to Milwaukee’s south side from Ozaukee County to get real Mexican food.
“There aren’t a lot of real Mexican restaurants between here and the South Side,” he said.
Calling the business an “authentic Mexican restaurant” is more than just a marketing catch phrase.
Calix grew up in Mexico City, helping his mother prepare food at a small storefront in a mall.
He came to the United States at the age of 19 and spent more than two decades working at restaurants on Milwaukee’s near south side that naturally specialized in Mexican cuisine.
Several members of the kitchen staff are friends Calix met while working at those city restaurants.
“I started at the bottom, which I think really teaches you about the restaurant business. I still wash dishes, bus tables and help in the kitchen,” he said.
“I think that is better than if you come in with the money and say, ‘I am going to open a restaurant.’”
It was while working at those city eating spots that Calix picked up the nickname Lobo, Spanish for wolf. It became the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
“When I decided it was time to start my own place, my family said, ‘Why not call it Lobo’s Place?’ because that is what people know me as,” he said.
Calix said customers will quickly notice the difference in the food he serves and what passes for Mexican fare at fast food chains.
“We only use fresh ingredients and everything is homemade. Even things like the tortilla chips, if they are not fresh, we throw them out,” he said.
The menu offers a wide variety of enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, chimichangas and tacos, but customers seem especially fond of the combination plates that allow a sampling of several menu items.
Calix said each combo plate is named for someone who has helped him along the way in his journey to becoming a restaurant owner.
In addition to a selection of soups, salads and side orders, the house specials include poblano steak, carne asada, pollo a la tequila, Mexican pizza and chile relleno.
As for Calix himself, he has a favorite item that you can’t order at Taco Bell.
“I like the parrillada — grilled skirt steak, beef riblets, steak and Mexican sausage served with fried onions and Mexican potatoes,” he said.
Driven by a desire to please customers, Calix said he studies the comment cards made out by diners after their meals.
“I read every card and am always talking to customers because I want to find out what they like and what they would change,” Calix said, sounding like someone who admits he is still learning the business after 25 years.
One of the suggestions he quickly embraced was adding a children’s menu featuring smaller portions as well as familiar American fare, such as chicken tenders, cheeseburgers and hot dogs.
“That way families can come. The parents can enjoy their favorite Mexican food and the kids can have what they like,” Calix said.
“We all have families, and we know you have to keep the kids happy.”
Of course, the desserts — homemade flan, cheesecake and gansitos (chocolate covered cake served with strawberries and whipped cream) — are popular with all ages.
Calix works very much from a family focus.
“What I would like to see is a little kid today come in years from now, order their first margarita and say, ‘I remember when I used to come in here with my family,’” he said.
Image information: LOBO’S PLACE HAS brought authentic Mexican food to downtown Grafton. Owner Luis Calix (lower) pays close attention to the comments and suggestions shared by customers.
Photos by Mark Jaeger