By: Taylor Fulkerson ~Managing Editor~
Josh Wamsley is an atypical restauranteur: he is not concerned with “authenticity.” He didn’t have a grand opening for his restaurant, Mazunte. In fact, he didn’t even plan to enter the business. Managing Editor Taylor Fulkerson sat down with him to talk about how he built the restaurant with his own hands in order to provide some of the best Mexican food available in Cincinnati.
Xavier Newswire: How did Mazunte get started?
Josh Wamsley: Basically, I went to school at the University of South Florida, and I lived on the beach — a true beach bum — and I knew I needed to leave or else I just would always be a beach bum.
So I moved to Europe (and later) to Korea. I taught English.
And in 2010, I came back and I was getting ready to go to Taiwan. I was deciding between Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, and I was gonna teach over there. But then, I just couldn’t find any really good Mexican food. I couldn’t find any taquerías — true “taquerías” — and by “taquería” I mean ‘a taco shop.’
That’s the definition of a “taquería:” not this fancy, bullshit food. It’s this true, simple, fun taco shop and I just didn’t understand why we didn’t have that.
So I decided, ‘I’ll move to Mexico and learn the food.’ I met with my business partner, and I told him the idea; He said, ‘dude, we’ll build this awesome “taquería.” (I said) ‘I’ll move to Mexico and learn (the food) from all the grandmothers in the streets. I’ll learn it from everybody, and I’ll live there for a year, and I’ll come back, we’ll raise the money and we’ll build it ourselves.’
And that’s exactly what we did.
XN: How did you learn to make food in this style?
JW: I wanted to learn all that stuff. I wasn’t really worried about having all the fancy stuff, like all these ‘preparations.’ I just needed to learn and get the technique so we could incorporate that here.
So I went down to Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico, I taught English and I learned in one year. Every weekend, my landlord would teach me on a Saturday morning. She taught me everything I needed to know. She was awesome.
My students — everybody, any person I talked to in that town — I told them I wanted to open a place that represented them. They’re all about it. They put so much life into their food.
We do a really shitty thing here: we just eat to eat. ‘Oh, we’re hungry, we should just eat something,’ and we just microwave some bullshit. I don’t know why Americans are really bad about that, but we are.
It’s weird. It’s not good, ‘cause we’re teaching our kids that crap. We’re the richest country, it just feels like we should eat the best food all the time.
XN: How was the restaurant built?
JW: So I was there (in Mexico) for a year and I came back in 2011, and then we started raising the money for it and building it out. I designed it, too — designed and contracted it. My friends and family helped me build the whole place for free. Everything.
We literally would spend seven days a week here. We were here night and day.
I used to get up at 5:30 in the morning. I would run and exercise, I would meditate for 15 or 20 minutes and then I would start my day. There was so much to do that if I didn’t do that, it wouldn’t get accomplished. Then I’d go until 10, and then do it all over again. That’s all I did for so long.
There were problems with building it up. Everything is recycled; I wasn’t a true contractor. We opened about two months behind schedule. It wasn’t the end of the world. I guess it’s kinda typical with restaurants.
XN: What was your approach to Cincinnati in the beginning?
JW: I just knew I wanted to make people happy and give them really good Mexican food. And I don’t care about this shit about being “authentic.”
You’ll never hear me say “authentic” because it’s not possible for me to go down and steal their corn or water and bring it back up here and make things like that. For me, to be “authentic,” it’s not really achievable. Everyone wants that, but I just wanted to make really good, really fresh Mexican food the way I want to eat it. That’s all I want to do. Through that, I guess we’ve achieved what people would call “authenticity,” but I don’t care about that word, really.
XN: What does Mazunte mean?
JW: Mazunte is a beach in Oaxaca, Mexico. I used to spend a ton of weekends there. My friend Adolfo and I, we were on his roof one night. He said, ‘what are you gonna name the taquería?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet. I’m going to Mazunte this weekend with some friends.’ And I was like, ‘Oh! I’ll name it Mazunte!’
XN: How did you settle on a menu?
JW: We made a menu and built everything else around that. The menu is the star of the show. The food is the absolute star. I think our customer service is great and everything else we do is great, but if the food’s not good, it’s not gonna matter to me. That’s the most important thing.
The Art of Mazunte
“By the salsa bar where the comal is, the comic books where it says ‘Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.’ That’s a Tupac quote. I wanted to make it colorful. I thought, ‘well, comic books are cool. Oh, Spanish comic books.’ If you look closely, those are all Spanish comic books. They’re all in Spanish.”
“The map in the back is a funny thing. There are 31 states in Mexico. That’s a map of Mexico made from 31 different recycled parts of Cincinnati. If you look in that map, you’ll find all kinds of crap, and it’s all stuff I found around Cincinnati. One state’s La Rosa’s, one state’s something else.”
(There is graffiti) that says, ‘ Provecho,’ which means, ‘Enjoy your meal.’ My friend Molly did that. She took an overnight bus from Chicago and did that in one day. And it was freezing in here. It had to look like street art. It had to look like you’re in the street. It had to look like you’re in Mexico.”
“The ‘no maches’ thing with the phoenix: the phoenix is a symbol of rising up from ashes, and I had this graffiti book with that picture. I loved it, it was just intense. It wasn’t that exact picture, but I went to my friend’s house and said, ‘man, you’re gonna do this graffiti for me.’ He said, ‘I’ve never done anything this big.’ I said, ‘well I’ve never opened a restaurant.’ And I won that battle. He worked on that for a month and a half. It stands out. From the street you see it right away.”