Tacos Chiwas owners share their love, culture


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We’ve already established that, while metro Phoenix is not the leader in Mexican restaurants in the U.S., it still has much to offer, with just over 1,700 Mexican food establishments in Maricopa County.

The owners of the renowned Mexican brand Chiwas proudly make the A-list of that group of chefs and restaurateurs who, year after year, position Arizona on the culinary map.

Armando Hernandez and Nadia Holguin — he a family restaurateur and she a trained chef — opened their first restaurant in 2016, when they were 26 and 21 years old, respectively. They named it Tacos Chiwas. Eight years later, they own and co-own multiple restaurants across the Valley and only plan on expanding.

But in addition to their entrepreneurial success, Hernandez and Holguin share a love story that has only grown over the years thanks to their perseverance — a value also instilled in their businesses that will soon reach a magnanimous milestone: a decade of success.

A culinary love story

They met over a decade ago when Hernandez’s brother invited him to a party. His brother was eager to see a girl he liked, who arrived with her cousins—one of them Holguin. An immediate connection was made.

At the time, Hernandez was a student at Arizona State University, where he planned to earn his law degree — although he never did — while Holguin was training at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale.

That night, the Chihuahua-born students talked about their future, not imagining that they would make them come true hand in hand.

“We started talking… and she tells me that she is going to be a chef and I tell her that one day I am going to open a restaurant… And she tells me, ‘me too, maybe we’ll open one together,'” Hernandez shared in an interview with La Voz Arizona / The Arizona Republic.

Their relationship blossomed — they married in 2014 — as they individually worked toward their dreams, taking jobs in kitchens in several Valley restaurants. Practice would make all the difference for both of them, Hernandez said.

One day, around Christmas 2015, when Hernandez was working at Pizzeria Bianco’s kitchen, Holguin arrived home and shared unhappy news about the recent change in position at her current job.

“I told her ‘get out, quit now and (we’ll look for) a building and open our own business. Why are we going to beg for something that we can do ourselves?’ And that same night, I went on Google and searched for restaurants for sale and the restaurant on McDowell came up,” he said.

What used to house a Dairy Queen off McDowell Road and 16th Street opened its doors as the first-ever Tacos Chiwas. With $50 in their bank account and a willingness to succeed, the couple managed to sell about $500 — not bad for their first day, they thought. That first day changed everything.

A small profit made all the difference

Investing all their savings, they began to condition that old Dairy Queen into what would be their first taqueria, just as they had talked about the first night they met.

“We didn’t know many things when it came to the business… So the money we had wasn’t enough for us. By the time we were going to open, we had 50 dollars on the card and I told my wife, ‘We need to open now because if any other expense pops up, we have nowhere to pull from,'” said Hernandez.

In March 2016, they opened their business with an “Open” sign and sat down to wait for their first customers. They managed to sell approximately $500, which, for them, was an impressive figure. But that opening day left them with much learned.

“It was a ‘chinga,'” Hernandez said. “The first customer told us, ‘Give me one of everything,’ and we were not ready.”

The one thing they were sure about ever since that opening day was their menu. Being originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua and knowing the lack of restaurants in Phoenix that offered dishes from that region, they made it a priority to include the best dishes from their childhood on that menu, like their signature flour gorditas with picadillo, deshebrada and rajas fillings.

“We are from Chihuahua, and we couldn’t find flour gorditas almost anywhere. They didn’t exist (in Phoenix), and I said, ‘Why not make them ourselves? We have everything we need, and we know what we are doing,'” Hernandez said.

The first months, with the help of family, they worked a lot and earned very little.

“We worked from 6 or 8 in the morning and we would sleep until very late, and the next day would do it all over again. We’ve always thought that consistency is the key to success. So it was about always being open, whether there were customers or not, seven days a week. Now, thinking about it, it was very heavy,” he said.

Where ‘love for cooking began’

Holguin arrived in the United States in 2000 at the age of 5, along with her parents and four brothers. Her parents had been hired to run a community kitchen in the Valley.

“They didn’t have any experience in the kitchen, only what they cooked at home or when they would go out to sell gorditas or burritos (as street vendors), and it was a change,” Holguin shared. “My parents had to make meals for 80 people, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we, all my brothers, helped them prepare those,” Holguin recalled.

“That’s where it all started for me, and that’s where my love for cooking began,” pushing her to seek a degree from Le Cordon Bleu years later.

Unlike his wife, Hernandez did not earn a college degree, but working with food was something he enjoyed growing up. He was born in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, but was raised in Namiquipa, while Holguin is from Jimenez— two small towns with very similar dishes and lifestyles.

At age 7, Hernandez and his family joined his father in Las Vegas, Nevada. They later made their way to Phoenix.

Years later, he got into ASU and pursued degrees in law and business but never completed his studies. “I was missing a semester,” he said. I decided I wanted to do something different.” While in college, he worked in restaurants to pay his tuition. It was nothing new for him since his family in Chihuahua owned restaurants and food carts.

“My uncle has a pizzeria and my other uncle has a chicken restaurant, another aunt sells burritos, my grandparents are farmers, my grandmother had a store — I grew up in that environment,” said Hernandez.

An evergrowing enterprise

After the success of their initial concept, in 2019, they decided to open their second Tacos Chiwas in Chandler, near Alma School and Warner roads, a small establishment managed by his father, Armando Hernandez Sr., and his brother, Jonathan Hernandez.

As the pandemic began in 2020, they decided to open their third Tacos Chiwas in downtown Mesa, on Main Street between Robson and MacDonald Streets.

“In my madness, I am a desperate person, but at the same time with a lot of energy and desire to grow. There was COVID and everyone was upset… I told my wife, ‘You know what? We’re going to open another restaurant,'” Hernandez shared. They opened in August 2020.

In 2021, they launched Bacanora, located on Grand and 13th avenues, alongside chef Rene Andrade, who had worked with Holguin previously. The opportunity arose to take over the place where Barrio Reserva used to be, from chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, owner of the renowned Barrio Café.

“I told him ‘well, we’ll help you open it, we do it our way and you’ll see that it’s going to go well’ and thank God it turned out very well, it won all the awards, it became very popular,” Hernandez said.

At the same time, they continued to see the potential for small businesses in downtown Mesa. Next to Tacos Chiwas was a space with a large bar, similar to one he had seen while on a trip to San Francisco.

“I walked in there — the place — and said, ‘this would be cool to do here’… and the idea of Espíritu came to be, which is in downtown Mesa and won the Eater award for the 15 best new restaurants of 2022,” he said. “We started with smaller food — Rene, Nadia and Roberto Centeno, who is our partner there. Then we made a seafood menu that, thank God, went very well for us.”

Due to a complication with leasing the space, Centeno and team signed a contract for a building in Phoenix, at 44th and Osborn streets, where they would move Espiritú to. But before officially moving the restaurant, the contract for Espíritu in Mesa was successfully renewed.

With an empty building in Phoenix, Santo Arcadia, a restaurant that opened its doors in January of this year. Shortly after, they opened the bar Pecado in the same location.

In February 2023, the couple opened another Chiwas brand restaurant — Cocina Chiwas located in the Culdesac community, the first completely car-free neighborhood in the country. Cocina Chiwas was recently named one of the best restaurants in the U.S. by USA Today.

In April, the couple plans on opening up a cafe in the same Culdesac community.

‘Aquí estamos’

Throughout their eight years in business, the most important thing for them has been to share a love for their culture through homemade and authentic Chihuahuan food. They’ve stayed true to that, sharing their roots and culinary delights with their daughters, 5-year-old Paloma and 7-month-old Aria, and their customers.

They import chile harvested the Valle in the border region of Juarez to Phoenix, staying consistent in the base of their product. The objective, they said, is to make the culture of Chihuahua known through taste and show just how different Mexican food is — that diners learn the origin of the flavor of each region.

They’re aware, however, that their menu isn’t for everyone, signaling that many still prefer to go to Mexican spots that have adjusted their dishes and seasonings to fit what non-Mexicans expect Mexican food to taste like.

“Thank God, we’re at a time in which we celebrate differences and that is largely what makes (what we do) special,” Hernandez said. “We are not for everyone and we understand that… we are proud of what we serve. We do the best we can, in our capacity and our taste,” said Hernandez.

“Do you like it? Chingón, aquí estamos.”

Reach La Voz reporter Nadia Cantú at nadia.cantu@lavozarizona.com or on X @nadiacantu.

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