El Minuto: A Trusted Culinary Tradition

Three generations of women—Rosalva Shaar, Terry Shaar, and Zulema Salinas —adhere to the Sonora-style cuisine that El Minuto Cafe has been known for since Juan Shaar opened it more than 75 years ago in Barrio Viejo.

November 1, 2014

In the BusinessIssue 9: November/December 2014

How was El Minuto established?

Terry: My grandfather was born in Arabia, in Beirut, Lebanon. And when he was young he came to the United States through Mexico and ended up in El Paso. My grandfather spoke the three languages and my father did also. My father, whose name was George, was born in El Paso. He used to go to Nogales, Sonora, and met my mom there. My grandfather always liked Mexican food and having Mexican restaurants. Then in 1936 he opened the restaurant El Minuto on Congress. And he always stayed open until 3 in the morning. There were a few things on the menu: tacos, menudo. People would go eat menudo after dancing at 1, 2 in the morning. In 1944 he moved over here, where we are now.

Rosalva: El Minuto was where the freeway went through there on Congress, and the state requested it. He had to move.

Las tres generaciones de mujeres, Rosalva Shaar, Terry Shaar,  y Zulema Salinas, manejan el restaurant.

Las tres generaciones de mujeres, Rosalva Shaar, Terry Shaar, y Zulema Salinas, manejan el restaurant.

How did urban renewal, which later transformed the area of the new location, affect you?

Terry: Our house was here and it was torn down when the Tucson Convention Center was built. Then we moved. It was around ’69, ’70. The restaurant was smaller. We added a room in ’89.

What other memories do you have from that time?

Terry: I remember that I could peek into the restaurant window and I could see my mom working. And I cried and cried. I was little.

Rosalva: A lot of celebrities used to come in when the Convention Center first opened. Edward James Olmos and Sylvester Stallone were here. Los Lobos still come in quite often.

Has the business always been in family hands?

Terry: Yes, always. I have worked here since I was in high school and graduated, because I love the restaurant business. That’s why I opened my own on Broadway and Kolb, because that’s what I wanted the most, to have my own business. And I had it for 10 years. We did have a lot of customers initially, but people would compare the two restaurants and say, “I like the one downtown better.” I came back here, and now we are three generations working in the restaurant: my mom, who is 83 years old, her granddaughter, and me.

How do you divvy up the work?

Terry: My mom places all the orders and my daughter Zulema and I work at night and close. My mom is still very strong. The only thing she won’t do is handle the computer. She wants nothing to do with the computer.

What would you say distinguishes El Minuto in a place like Tucson where there are so many Mexican food restaurants?

Terry: Well, I think because the food is very good.

Rosalva: That’s what we hear. Customers tell us that they like that the food is consistent. They don’t come in once and it’s good and then come again and it’s not.

Terry: And it’s because we don’t hire cooks, like other places, that hire cooks and let them make food the way they know to make it. Not here, because they have to cook the food the way my mom wants it. They can’t use recipes that they know. We never change the food.

Rosalva: Employees have been working here for many years.

Terry: Customers also know the servers and they ask for one they like. They also like that there isn’t a different server every time they come in.

Rosalva Shaar muestra una foto de su hijo, George.

Rosalva Shaar muestra una foto de su hijo, George.

What is your most popular dish?

Terry: Carne seca (dried beef).

Rosalva: We slice it here, we dry it here, we do everything here.

Terry: Also menudo. People always call and ask if we have menudo. And that’s because many restaurants have it Friday and Saturday, but we have it every day.

Have you ever served Lebanese food?

Terry: Not here but we make it at home. Once at the other restaurant I made a Lebanese-style rice that I’m fascinated with. I learned to make it from my mom and my mom learned to make it from my grandmother. And I made it there one time because we made pork, and we don’t have pork on the menu here.

What type of clientele do you have?

Rosalva: A lot of state employees, from the government, come for lunch. There are also customers who have been coming for years, who used to come with their parents when they were little and now bring their children and grandchildren. A few days ago an older couple came in and they were reminiscing about how they used to come here when they were dating.

How does El Minuto fit into Tucson’s culinary scene?

Terry: I would say that on the one hand we became famous, so to speak, for being in business for so many years. And for the Sonora-style food. Many try to make different Mexican food, and fusion, but we have always kept it the same. For instance, many people ask for nachos, which is an item I will never put on the menu.

Why not?

Terry: Because for me that’s not Mexican.

El Minuto Café. 354 S. Main Ave. ElMinutoCafe.com.

Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the border. Follow her on Twitter @_lourdesmedrano.

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