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Luis Ortiz (right), owner, and (from left) servers Yessenia Hernandez and Arturo Gonzalez and manager Jorge Ortiz. Photo by JACK WEATHERLY

Claiming a slice of the American Dream

By JACK WEATHERLY

Las Palmas Mexican Grill ain’t refried beans.

It’s Luis Ortiz’ sueño, his dream.

Ortiz, a native of Zacatecaz, high in the mountains of central Mexico, started as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Cancun and worked his way up the food chain, you might say, till he became a sous chef, eventually becoming top chef.

Then he started opening restaurants for his employer.

But like so many others of his country, he heard America calling.

Sometimes, realization of a dream can be tantalizingly close. For six years, he was general manager at Las Margaritas on County Line Road, a few blocks east of Las Palmas.

Then a door closed. And another opened.

Cozumel closed last November.

“I had to watch and see what happened,” he said in an interview at the his bar, where domestic and Mexican beers poured from taps into large schooners. He would drive past the empty building and say to himself: “That building is too nice to be empty.”

He signed a lease on the property on Dec. 29.

Then it took him seven months of cleaning and remodeling to get it ready to open.

On July 22, Ortiz opened Las Palmas, aptly named because of the palm trees that ring the restaurant on Wheatley Street, a block north of County Line.

The second day, things seemed to be running smoothly.

With one loud and notable exception.

During the interview, Ortiz was talking about the bad things in his homeland.

No sooner than his interviewer mentioned the name El Chapo – the drug lord now back in a Mexican prison after a sensational escape from an-other – than there was a very loud BANG!

Some lunchtime customers took that as a cue to to get up from their colorful, heavy wooden chairs and head for the exit.

But the veteran restaurateur’s first guess was that a CO2 pipe had burst.

Sure enough, that was it, he said on Monday.

Of the food, he said, “It’s Mexican, not Tex-Mex.”

The portions on this day were generous. I had a tender and tasty beef chimichanga, which came with rice and frijoles and a guacamole salad on a large and very hot plate.

And the future for Ruiz and his restaurant (11 a.m. till 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 till 11 on Friday and Saturday)?

“I don’t want to be rich. I just want have something to give to my family,” he said. At 49, he smiles and says maybe he’ll retire in 10 years.

If not, “I want to work because I love to work.”

Ortiz came to America 27 years ago. Two years later, he said, he was a U.S. citizen.

Born a Catholic, he is now a Southern Baptist. He belongs to the Iglesia Hispanic de Clinton, the Hispanic Church of Clinton, where, he says, all members speak English.

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