KENNETT SQUARE—La Peña Mexicana is open every day, and most days Julian Peña himself is there to welcome customers. This award-winning restaurant, a Kennett Square landmark that Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan describes, with all affection, as “striped like a bumblebee in a Mexican flag,” feels cozy and familiar. The bilingual staff greet customers with menus and friendly smiles. “When I’m here—which is almost always—I work to make people happy so they come back,” Julian says. He loves to talk with his customers and sing while he’s cooking. “I don’t mind if people think I’m crazy,” he says. “It makes me happy.”
“The immigrant-rich agricultural community around mushroom country has a long tradition of great Mexican food, but La Peña Mexicana is my absolute favorite,” says LaBan in his 2017 “Best of the ’Burbs” review. Reviewers often use words like “soulful,” “vibrant,” and “authentic” to describe the dishes at La Peña. Julian says he hears about these reviews, and awards from Main Line Today and others, from customers. And, with a characteristic humility that keeps him grounded and focused, he takes the accolades lightly. “I’ve gotten good reviews, I’ve gotten bad reviews,” he says. “If something is wrong, I always try to correct it and make it better. I find it hard to believe when someone praises my cooking. When they come back, then I know they liked it.”
A Long Road to Making a Dream a Reality
Julian’s journey to owning his own restaurant and bringing the flavors of his home in Mexico to Kennett Square was a long one, paved with some significant obstacles. He grew up in Iguala, in the southwestern coastal state of Guerrero. After high school and five years in the army, he decided to finish college. “But I was used to earning money and lost my incentive,” he says. “I changed jobs, and as young people tend to do, I misspent my money and was having financial problems.” So, like many others, he decided to come to the States, to California, with a view to returning to Mexico after three or four years. “That was 23 years ago,” he says with a smile.
His original idea had been to import and sell clothes from Mexico. But he ended up working a variety of jobs, from gardening to construction, and moving to Pennsylvania. He also worked in many different restaurants. In his last job, in a taco shop, he started as a waiter and worked his way up to manager. “This job helped me have a vision for my own place and gave me great experience with inventory and logistics,” he says. “I’ve always loved cooking, so I decided it was time to pursue my original dream of opening my own business.”
In 2003, he started a lunch truck in West Chester. Business was going well—until he had an accident and the truck rolled over. He thought he was finished. “I was very frustrated. It was a bad situation at the time,” he says. But with some savings and the insurance money he began looking for a spot for a brick and mortar business—and he found he could afford the now iconic location at the corner of West Cypress and North Washington. “It was difficult at first,” he says. “I had to borrow money from friends. I opened on Christmas day in 2005 and I made $36.” He smiles. “It was my Christmas present.”
The Menu and the Menu
La Peña began as a true taqueria, offering flavorful, authentic fare prepared with care—tacos, burritos, tortas, and quesadillas. The bill of fare has since expanded to include popular items such as chimichangas and huaraches in addition to platters, so La Peña is now more properly a fonda, or restaurant. The menu features some of Julian’s own signature dishes as well, including the burrito “drowning” in sauce. “Some have copied me,” he says, “but I had the idea and had never seen it done.”
Julian’s own favorite dishes have remained the same since he was a young boy in Iguala. The first is green chile enchiladas with chicken. The second is fried fish. “I don’t cook it for myself very often,” he says, “because it’s the whole fish and I rarely have the time to sit and take it apart to eat it.” The third is cecina, dried beef that’s seasoned and cured. He describes it as “softer than jerky but chewy, and sliced more thinly.”
He enjoys being creative in the kitchen and inventing a sauce or cooking something special for regular customers. “I never know how it’s going to come out—I make it up as I go along. I ask them to try it, and if they don’t like it they can order something else. I don’t want them just to say it’s good. I want their honest opinions,” he says. “I’m limited by the small space and the size of the fridge, but I like to try new things for my own satisfaction.” When he can, he takes special requests from customers. Kathleen Snyder, a longtime customer and co-founder of Casa Guanajuato, was craving chilaquiles one day, for example, and there’s some not-so-secret buzz that his huevos rancheros (not on the menu) are legendary.
When it’s busy, the choreography in the small open kitchen is like a ballet. “I have an open kitchen for one reason,” Julian says. “The customers can see how we fix the food and the employees know the customers can see them, so they do things right.” He laughs as he describes the public and private faces of La Peña on particularly busy nights. “Employees will be stressed out, bickering with each other in the kitchen, and then they’ll come out into the dining area with big smiles for the customers.”
A Down-to-Earth Approach
Julian has built up his loyal customer base and devoted fans the old-fashioned way. He focuses on providing the best food with friendly, attentive service—and he relies on word of mouth for the rest. He doesn’t advertise, and he doesn’t have a website. “Anything on the internet has been put there by my customers,” he says.
La Peña has full, descriptive menus in English, but while the restaurant does a big take-out business there are no take-out menus. Julian doesn’t even want credit when he donates food to events like Casa Guanajuato’s Day of the Dead celebration. “When people ask me for help I do it because I love to do it, not because I’m waiting for anything in return,” he says. His fan club includes Chester County Top Restaurants, Main Line Today awards, and loyal customers who send him pictures of themselves wearing La Peña shirts in far-flung places including Korea and India.
Julian’s slightly unconventional approach to restauranteurism is also refreshingly honest. While he’ll do everything possible to make an order right, or to change what a customer ordered if they’re not happy, he smiles when he says, “I don’t believe the customer is always right. But I love them very much, and thanks to them we can eat and pay the bills.”
Julian’s wife Monica helped him a lot when he was starting out, and she still does his bookkeeping, inventory, and ordering. They have two children, ages 17 and 11, and live in Claymont, Delaware. While Julian gives his employees vacation time and regular days off, he’s rarely able to take time off himself. He sometimes has a hard time walking as the result of an accident from his days working in construction, but the pain, long hours, and hard work don’t hold him back. “The captain of the ship has to be on board,” he says. “If I have enough staff I can sometimes take a day or a half day off, but if I leave I can’t be 100% tranquilo—I’ll be at home with my family wondering if the restaurant is super busy and they need me.” He grins. “Sometimes my wife will call and say, ‘If you don’t come home I’ll divorce you.’ So I’ll go home for a few hours and come back.”
While many of his actual family members have worked at La Peña over the years, Julian says all of his employees are like family. “We laugh together, and sometimes we’re sad, we cry, we fight, but I’ve always tried to maintain open relationships so we don’t keep things inside.” He admits to treating women differently than men. “Women are stronger, more responsible, have a better work ethic,” he says. “Men might have more physical strength to carry things, but men often think because you’ve taught them something one time they know everything.” His laughter fills the small restaurant.
Julian speaks with the wisdom of a man whose hard work, hard knocks, and humility have shaped him. “I haven’t become a rich man, but I have enough to live a good life with my family and the people who work here. A lot of people say I should make the restaurant bigger. But it’s big enough. With a small business you have small problems, and with a big business you have big problems. I don’t like big problems.” He pauses. “Sometimes part of me wishes I had something bigger, fancier—but that would require investing my savings and going back to the beginning, and I didn’t like that worried feeling, with no money. I don’t need more,” he says. “Estoy contento.”
“I love what I do. It doesn’t mean I’m not stressed or tired, and I have problems like everyone else,” he says, “but I think I’ll be around awhile longer because I love what I do.” This is great news for Kennett Square, a town whose reputation as a foodie destination continues to grow, as well as for locals who have this destination-worthy restaurant on their doorstep.
Julian pauses and asks permission to include a special message to his customers. “I want to thank all the people who have ever eaten here, and all the customers who eat here frequently. I’m very grateful,” he says.
La Peña Mexicana, 609 West Cypress Street, is open 10 am to 9 pm, seven days a week.
Go to HistoricKennettSquare.com/Events/RestaurantWeek to find details about La Peña Mexicana’s specials during Fall Restaurant Week, Sept. 29–Oct. 6.