Mexican independence

Clyde Ross opened the first Mexicali Rosa’s restaurant in Ottawa 33 years ago, in a squat concrete building that still stands on Bank Street in the Glebe. Several other Mexis popped up all over Ottawa – and across the country. And when Ross sold the Mexicali Rosa concept to a franchise company a decade ago, he kept control of his location.

But more recently, the owners of Mexicali Rosa restaurants decided to drop the well-known name, in hopes that customers are loyal to good food first and a familiar name second.

Ottawa’s Mexicali Rosa’s had been serving up chimichangas and burritos independently since 2009, when the franchise company quietly went out of business. But when Mathew Youden, a Mexicali’s owner in New Brunswick, bought the rights to the name last year, Ottawa owners were presented with an ultimatum: re-join the franchise or go it alone.

Not one location signed a franchise agreement.

“I think they felt that they could do it as well under their own name and under their own banner,” said Youden.

That’s been the goal for Ottawa owners, although each location has tackled the challenge in a different way, and with different success.

Ross’ restaurant in the Glebe is still festooned with bright paint and life-size murals. But the faded Mexican theme that had adorned the walls for decades has been painted over with scenes that evoke the open road: a red convertible, and some old-fashioned gas pumps. While the theme is different, it still looks as out of place in Ottawa’s snow and ice as it ever did.

Dropping the Mexicali’s banner didn’t faze Ross—he said he had already been planning to change the restaurant into a southern barbeque joint.

“We already have a Mexican restaurant right here,” he said, meaning his other restaurant Feleena’s, only a few blocks away.

“And we felt that the concept was tired and that there was no potential for growth, and that Ottawa needed new ideas, and new restaurants.”

Ross grew up in California with a love of Mexican food. But with both parents hailing from Oklahoma and extended family across the southern United States, southern barbeque is just as much part of his culinary pedigree.

Hence, the transformation from Mexicali Rosa’s to Annie and Clyde’s Southern Barbeque, named after Ross and his wife. There are a few nods to recent history on the menu, with nachos and guacamole, but pulled pork and beef brisket are the new headliners.

Annie and Clyde’s opened under the new moniker in late January, and according to marketing director Sofie McGarry, the restaurant is “getting busier and busier.”

“The wonderful thing is that everybody who loved Mexi’s is still coming in for the nachos, but what’s great is that when they come in for the nachos, they try the barbeque and they come back for the barbeque,” she said.

For others, a departure from the menu their customers have come to expect is not on the table.

Mohamad Maurad bought the former Mexicali’s restaurant on Hunt Club Road—now known as Twisted Lizard—in October.

“The previous owner basically opened up a whole new restaurant,” after changing the name, he said, complete with a new menu.

What that meant is that customers would come to the doors, look at the menu, and leave once they realized they couldn’t get their old Mexicali favourites, said Maurad.

So he launched his own Mexican menu in early January.

“It’s a very recent change, but we can already see a big difference…much, much better. The menu is still Tex-Mex, so they end up staying. Before, they used to leave,” he said.

The former Mexicali Rosa’s location on Dow’s Lake took a more direct route, sticking with Mexican food from day one of their name change to GuadalaHarry’s, a reference to a now-closed Tex-Mex joint that ran in the Byward market during the 1990s

The name change was “not a big deal,” said owner Kalil Saikaley. The important thing was that he didn’t have to change the way he ran his restaurant.

Opting for continuity seems to have worked—his sales haven’t dipped, he said.

While Ottawa’s restauranteurs are content to leave the Mexicali’s banner behind, Mexicali Rosa’s may not have left the city for good.

Bringing the Mexicali Rosa’s franchise back to Ottawa is “definitely one of our targets…in the very near future,” said Mexicali owner, Mathew Youden.