This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
From the combination plate with rice and beans to the smothered burrito with cheese and onions, the food at some of Utah's most well-known Mexican restaurants looks and tastes remarkably similar.
Even the names Cafe Silvestre, La Frontera, La Puente, La Fountain, La Luna and Lorena's sound like siblings.
In a state where studying one's ancestors is a passion, it's time to better understand the culinary DNA of these six restaurants.
Owners say the genealogy spans nearly four decades and involves three generations; just like any family tree, the lineage is complicated, woven with tales of hard work, new beginnings, fire literally and a bit of cooked-up gossip.
At its most basic level, Utah's Mexican restaurant ancestry is this: "La Frontera is the trunk of the tree and we are the branches," says Paul Serrano, owner of La Luna in Jordan Landing.
La Frontera • If La Frontera is the trunk of the tree, Salt Lake City's Cafe Silvestre is the roots. Antonio Tovar, who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and immigrated to the U.S. at 15, worked at Cafe Silvestre in the late 1970s before opening the first La Frontera in 1980. Tovar, who was known to wear a Mexican Tejana hat and stylish suits, named the restaurant La Frontera, or "the border," a reference to the obstacles he faced trying to succeed in a new country.
Tovar owned and operated the restaurant with his third wife, Viola Tovar, and his children from his first marriage. Together, they developed a loyal following serving low- to moderate-priced tacos, enchiladas and tamales. Diners still can order one item from the à la carte menu or pick orders of three or two with rice and beans. Among all the offerings, it was the chile verde and smothered burrito, topped with cheese and onion, that captured the hearts and stomachs of Utah diners.
"He got the original recipes from Cafe Silvestre owner Gloria Ruiz,"said Viola Tovar. "But he was a very good cook, too."
Over the next eight years, the family continued to grow the La Frontera brand, opening several locations along the Wasatch Front.
La Puente • When the Tovars separated in 1989 Viola took over the La Frontera at 3434 S. State. She renamed it La Puente, after the tiny town in New Mexico where she was born and raised. The name change caused speculation among regular diners, and rumors began to circulate claiming the couple had a bitter divorce and Antonio Tovar was penniless.
The tall tales were entertaining dinner fodder, but false. "Everybody is always wondering about that," Viola Tovar said. "But there was never a fight."
The couple never divorced, she said, because shortly after the separation, in June 1990, Antonio Tovar died and his children took over the other La Frontera locations, which they still operate. Today, there are nine restaurants in the La Frontera chain: three in Salt Lake City as well as Midvale, Sandy, Tooele, West Valley City, Roy and St. George.
Viola has continued to operate La Puente with her four children from her first marriage, and has been recognized several times throughout her career as a leader in Utah's business and Latino communities. La Frontera's head chef, Luis Lopez, came to work for her, as did Antonio Tovar's oldest son, Richard. Together, they opened several more restaurants. A fire destroyed the original location in 2006, but La Puente quickly recovered, moving a block south to its current spot at 3540 S. State.
Franchises • After years in the restaurant business, Viola began contemplating retirement, deciding to franchise the La Puente name in 2003. The number of franchisees has ebbed and flowed through the years, but currently there are franchises in Layton, Centerville and Ogden, she said. A new one opened last week in Taylorsville.
Viola said several years ago, one of the franchise owners wanted to discontinue his La Puente contract, so they changed the company name and the La Fountain group of Mexican restaurants was born. Today there are six La Fountain locations in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Riverton, Sandy, Tooele and Lehi.
Tovar's grandson Paul Serrano, now 35, also operated a La Puente franchise in West Jordan. But a few years ago, he branched off, renaming it La Luna Restaurant.
Lorena's • The final piece of this ancestry puzzle involves the La Frontera that Antonio Tovar opened in Woods Cross in 1987. After several years of low sales, Tovar was thinking about shutting it down. His friend Johnny "Tob" Paul, who worked at La Frontera, offered to take over the Davis County location.
When Tovar died, rather than try to rework the contract with the Tovar children, the Pauls went out on their own and renamed it Lorena's Mexican Restaurant.
Lena Paul said the restaurant is still confused with La Frontera and the divorce gossip.
"I've had people come in and tell me what an awful human being I am," she said. "Supposedly, I divorced my husband and I left him with nothing but a truck and now he lives under the viaduct."
Rather than get angry, Lena sets the record straight. She calls Tob out of the kitchen and explains how they've been married for 53 years with no plans of separating.
La Frontera family tree
1976 • Gloria Ruiz opens Cafe Silvestre. Antonio Tovar becomes an employee.
1980 • Antonio Tovar opens first La Frontera, 236 W. 400 South, in Salt Lake City.
1981-89 • Antonio and Viola Tovar expand, adding restaurants in Salt Lake City, West Valley and Woods Cross.
1989 • Tovars separate; Viola renames the La Frontera at 3434 S. State, La Puente.
1989 • Tob and Lena Paul, take over the Woods Cross La Frontera.
1990 • Antonio Tovar dies and his children take over remaining La Frontera locations.
1991 • La Frontera in Woods Cross is renamed Lorena's Mexican Restaurant.
2003 • La Puente begins to franchise; one of the contracts is to Viola's grandson, Paul Serrano in West Jordan.
2004 • La Puente in West Jordan renamed La Luna.
2006 • The original La Puente damaged in a fire; moves to current location, 3540 S. State.
2010 • La Puente franchise contract ends, owner renames restaurants La Fountain.
2016 • Newest La Puente franchise opens in Taylorsville.