Esaul Rodriguez, co-owner of Puerto Vallarta’s restaurants in Connecticut, has brought a little of his birthplace, Jalisco, Mexico, to Connecticut. Esaul came from a large farming family in a small, but beautiful Mexican village, Union de Tula, in the state of Jalisco. Farming and ranching were among the only ways to make a living, but Esaul had bigger dreams and wanted more out of life. At age 16, speaking no English and with just six dollars in his pocket, he went to Seattle to work in his uncle’s Mexican restaurant.
He learned fast, worked hard, and developed the skills necessary to be successful in the food service industry. He moved up from bus boy to waiter, then to cook where he managed people, schedules, products, vendors, budgets, and banking all the while, creating authentic Mexican dishes from scratch. In 1991, at age 21, he opened his own Mexican restaurant in Oregon with his brother, Juan. Esaul expected to save some money and move back to Mexico, but was delightfully surprised to discover he was falling in love with America.
Determined to achieve a new goal to share the culture and warmth of his beloved Mexico and with everything on the line, Esaul came East to seek his fortune. He wanted to create a place where his guests could truly experience Mexican culture in addition to delicious, well-prepared foods and beverages made from scratch. His vision encompassed the smells, tastes, sounds, colors, flavors and beauty of Mexico.
In 1999, after buying and completely transforming the former Edelweiss restaurant in West Hartford Center, Esaul opened his very first restaurant. His freshly-made foods, reasonable prices and authentic venue, were so unique to the area. Before long, people were lining up to eat at Puerto Vallarta. With the success of his first restaurant, it was possible (and a smart idea) to open another in Connecticut. So in 2001, Esaul opened Puerto Vallarta in Newington. In 2003, the Middletown restaurant opened. Then in 2004, he opened the Southington location. In 2006 Avon followed, and Orange launched in 2012. In August of 2019, he opened the newest location in Fairfield, CT
Esaul’s hard work, his desire bonded with a vision of a great, traditional Mexican cuisine experience, his passion for his homeland and love for a land of prosperity – the United States – made his dream come true. Guests at Puerto Vallarta find their senses transported to a place that’s vibrant, authentic, hospitable and traditional, a place that fosters an atmosphere in which customers may relax and enjoy. “This place is like Union de Tula, only closer… just what I wanted to give to Connecticut.” – Esaul
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When Juan Rodriguez first arrived in Connecticut, he sat on the side of the Berlin Turnpike with a tally counter and a notebook, counting the cars that passed by. He had read in the library that Connecticut was one of the best places to make money in the U.S. and that 30,000 cars drove on the Berlin Turnpike every day, but he wanted to see for himself. Shortly afterward, he opened Puerto Vallarta in Newington, on the Berlin Turnpike.
Growing up in the small town of Union de Tula in central-western Mexico, Rodriguez would go days, and sometimes weeks, without food of the table. He had 10 brothers and two sisters, and his father typically spent half the year or more working on farms in the U.S. and sending money back to his family. One of Rodriguez’s brothers was studying to be a doctor at the time in Guadalajara, two hours away from home.
“I didn’t see it at the time, every time that my brother came, he didn’t come to see us, he was coming because he needed something,” Rodriguez said. When his brother needed money for a textbook, his parents would sell one or two of the family’s cows. “I only remembered those books as one cow or two cows,” Rodriguez said.
By the time Rodriguez was 14, a few of his older brothers already had moved to the U.S., and he decided to follow. Instead of going to school, he immediately started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Seattle. He eventually made his way to the East Coast, saving money and helping his brothers invest in opening different restaurants. There is still a location in Coos Bay, Oregon, which he helped his brother open.
Since arriving in Connecticut in 2000, he and his brothers have opened six Puerto Vallarta locations across Connecticut, including the restaurant in Newington, which is the first one he opened. With all the success he has had, Rodriguez said he enjoys giving back to the community. “I can honestly say that I live my dream more than I ever expected, many times over,” Rodriguez said.
He hosts between 50 and 60 fundraisers a year out of his restaurant, for everything from local sports teams to Autism Speaks. After each fundraiser, Rodriguez donates 20 percent of the gross profits from that day. Rodriguez also brings food to other fundraising endeavors, like Taste of Newington. “It’s supposed to be a taste, so you bring a sample, but that’s not me. I bring trays of food,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez first started hosting fundraisers seven years ago, helping a community member who wanted to raise money for the schools, and he hasn’t stopped since. “Every time you walk through in there, there’s a sign on the door for another fundraiser,” said Kristen Ciarcia, a friend of Rodriguez, who has hosted several fundraisers at Puerto Vallarta for the Humane Society. Ciarcia has been coming to Puerto Vallarta since it first opened and said that when Rodriguez is in the restaurant, he’s always willing to stop and talk to customers, no matter how busy he is. “He’s so proud of it and you can tell, because it’s exactly the way his hometown would make it,” Ciarcia said.
Even now that he owns several restaurants, Juan works long hours seven days a week to keep his restaurants up to his standards. He still makes times for his three kids and his wife, occasionally going on vacation, and attending his kids sporting events.
“I do feel proud of what I’ve done and I’ve tried to encourage everybody, you have to work hard to get to where you want to be,” Rodriguez said. “You have to take a chance, and I’ve been blessed that everything we did worked out good.”