When Teresa and Alfonso Matias decided to open their own restaurant, they gave themselves two weeks. Two weeks to open their business. Two weeks to change their lives.
Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe, located on North Silver Mosaic Drive, is one of Tucson’s most famous Mexican restaurants. This family-owned restaurant is known for its fusion of Oaxaca and Sonoran dishes, huevos rancheros, and fresh handmade tortillas.
But, there’s more to this restaurant than meets the eye. Every brick of this restaurant tells a story of hard work, sacrifice, and family built from the ground up. From humble beginnings to the Food Network, this is the story of the Matias family and a dream.
Teresa and Alfonso Matias grew up in Santa Maria del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico, home to the world’s thickest tree. Tourists traveled from around the world to visit the small town. Locals crowded around the tree with food stands selling empanadas and quesadillas.
Teresa and Alfonso made and sold cheese at one of these stands. They got married in 1970. Alfonso, 72, joked about the moment they first met. He said he knew she was the one when he saw Teresa, 62, wrapped in a blanket when he was 10-years-old.
“They lived across the street from each other, but they were ten years apart, so my dad says that at that age he knew that he was going to marry her,” their son, David Matias, said.
They’ve been married for 47 years and have worked together ever since.
“Day and night,” Alfonso joked. Teresa erupted with laughter, clapping her hands together.
“47? 92 [years]!” Alfonso added laughing alongside his wife. David said, “It’s true, they worked together during the day and went [home] together at night.”
After having two children, Teresa and Alfonso realized they couldn’t live off of their cheese business and decided to start a new life in the United States. They had family in the U.S. who worked as dishwashers.
For about 400 pesos, Teresa and Alfonso and their two children took a three-hour bus ride to Tucson. Teresa and Alfonso took their first jobs at Ye Olde Lantern, located on North Oracle Road. Alfonso worked as a dishwasher, and Teresa worked as a bus girl at the now-closed restaurant. Dean Short, the restaurant owner at the time, introduced them to the restaurant business.
Unfortunately, Teresa was stuck because she couldn’t speak English at the time. Teresa and Alfonso eventually found a better job opportunity at Krueger Manufacturing Company, an air conditioning ducts factory. They had better pay and benefits at their new job.
One day, the manager from Ye Olde Lantern visited Teresa and Alfonso. She was going to open her own restaurant. She knew Teresa had some cooking skills and wanted the Matias to work for her.
“My mom always cooked at home, but it was never anything like … she was never, like, I’m going to have a restaurant one day or anything like that,” David said.
They agreed to help her look at locations for the new restaurant. One of these locations was on the corner of North Silverbell Road and West Speedway Boulevard, where a small white building no larger than a house sat.
They sat down and started talking about the location. The manager decided against it and left, but Teresa and Alfonso stayed and continued the conversation that would change the course of their lives.
“My mom and my dad went home, and they ended up saying, ‘I think we can do this. If we’re going to be doing all the work, we might as well do all the work,’” David said.
Teresa and Alfonso asked the factory for two weeks off to see how their business went because they didn’t want to give up their jobs in case it didn’t work out. They had only two weeks to open their Mexican restaurant. Almost four decades later, business is booming. David said his parents even worked on weekends cleaning offices in case their business failed.
“Thirty-six years later, I’m actually surprised they don’t still clean the offices,” David laughed. His parents laughed along in unison.
David proudly shared his parents’ immigration story and credits the success of Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe to their work ethic. He explained that, in Oaxaca, the lifestyle is difficult, and that his parents’ concerns and wishes for their children are what started this dream.
“I think at 72 and at 62 they’re still worried about us,” David said. “We were having this conversation today … with other people and they’re like, ‘The most important thing is matrimony, then your house, and then your kids.’ The Mexican lifestyle is, ‘No, no, the most important thing is the kids.’” After opening Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe at its first location, they had to move a few times because of construction. Finally, they bought the land on top of the hill where Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe is located today. They built the bright turquoise building from scratch.
The food at Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe offers a fusion of Oaxaca and Sonoran flavors. Sonora is the closest Mexican state to Tucson, so they adjusted their menu for the masses. David said Oaxacan food has a lot of earthy flavors and spices. “Our birria here in the restaurant, it’s a Sonoran dish, but we make it with a Oaxaqueno twist,” David said. They prepare their chiles a special way, a family secret, he added.
David went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. His mom trusts him with her recipes. He said he still doesn’t cook anything without making sure she approves. “I’ve been working for my mom since I was 13-years-old, and she teaches me something every day,” he said. David’s 16-year-old daughter now works at the restaurant, too.
Teresa’s mom taught her how to cook and passed down family recipes, like the salsa for their famous huevos rancheros, the marinade for the pork adobo, and the red chile enchiladas.
Teresa discovered her passion for cooking after she had her children. She planned a list of meals for the week, so that when she went to the grocery store she was prepared. She liked to cook for other people, and when someone liked her food it added to her passion for cooking.
“All of my life here, I started at the bottom,” Teresa said. She said it’s easy to open restaurants, but it’s harder to maintain them. David said his parents won’t retire because they love their job. “It’s not because of the necessity,” David said. “It’s because of the passion that they have for work. They love to be here. They love the noise. They love the smells. They love everything that’s going on in the restaurant.”
Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe makes fresh handmade flour and corn tortillas daily. You can buy them by the dozen for only $5. “That’s an art that we’re losing in Mexico because the new generation, they don’t know how to make tortillas,” David said.
The tortillas will last about four days outside of the refrigerator. If refrigerated, they can last about a week, and they can last over a week in the freezer.
David said that after Food Network aired a special on their huevos rancheros, people packed into the restaurant. The next day, sixteen tickets in a row with five to seven orders each hung in the kitchen. Huevos rancheros is Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe’s most popular dish, and it’s served all day. Their most popular drink is the aguas frescas and the mango chamoy margarita. Their busiest time is lunchtime from about 11:30 to 2:00 p.m., and all day on weekends.
The Matias family thanks the Tucson community, the United States, and God for their success. Their daughter opened a restaurant called Mosaic Cafe Dos on North La Cholla Boulevard, but David isn’t sure if they’ll ever expand beyond their hill. “Today is Thursday the 13th,” David said. “My mom woke up today and she didn’t have any plans, but tomorrow is Friday the 14th. I would not be surprised [if she expanded]. That’s how my mom is, when she has an idea in her mind. It’s going to get done.”
Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe, located on 2456 N. Silver Mosaic Dr., is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and on Sunday until 2:00 p.m.