Sauce Magazine – Acapulco Restaurant & Lounge in St. Ann is a local landmark
Acapulco Restaurant & Lounge in St. Ann is a local landmark
The southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca is home to one of Mexico’s proudest culinary cultures, whose moles, tlayudas and mezcal have been the subject of growing admiration in the U.S. over the past decade. However, when Ernestina Zegar opened a little Mexican restaurant in St. Ann in 1976, the circumstances were very different. Ernestina’s daughter, Mari Zegar, said her mother would have liked to have named the restaurant after her hometown, the city of Oaxaca. “But nobody could pronounce it, nobody could spell it, and nobody even knew where it was,” Mari said.
Instead, Ernestina named the restaurant Acapulco, which was then a tourism hotspot whose name evoked the midcentury glamour of famous visitors like Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra. Ernestina was pragmatic in her choice of name, but in the kitchen there would be no compromises. The menu at Acapulco would include Mexican dishes Ernestina had grown up eating and learning to cook, including Oaxacan dishes like mole chicken, as well as tamales, chile rellenos, bistec a la Mexicana and menudo. Local diners were impressed, and Acapulco quickly established itself as a destination, joining places like Casa Gallardo, Ruiz and Hacienda among the few Mexican restaurants in the St. Louis area in the mid-1970s.
In the beginning, many of Acapulco’s customers were still in the process of discovering Mexican food, but Mari Zegar believes that into the 1980s and 1990s the rise and proliferation of chain restaurants created a distorted perception of the cuisine among many Americans. “Once the chains started coming out, everything blanded up, so that's what people were used to: bland Mexican food,” she said. “Mexican food isn't bland. Mexican food has a lot of flavor to it.”
from left: linda zegar and maribel 'mari' zegar, co-owners at acapulco, hold a portrait of their late mother, ernestina zegar, who opened acapulco in 1976 // photo by david kovaluk
Ernestina, a stickler for quality in the kitchen, resisted the temptation to dilute her recipes. Mari recalls her mother using a large spoon to measure out quantities – whether a quarter teaspoon or a tablespoon – purely by sight. “Everything was by memory, by heart, and made with love,” she said. Ernestina trusted her food, and that faith was borne out by her customers. “She refused to change any of her recipes because of what the people wanted,” Mari said. “We get customers who have been coming here since we opened in 1976. I would say they are addicted to her food. They try other restaurants, and they're disappointed.”
Ernestina didn’t change the menu at Acapulco too much over the years, but she wasn’t afraid to take risks. Mari Zegar described her mother as pioneer: She introduced hot wings “before there was a Wingstop,” obtained a Sunday liquor license, making Acapulco one of the first restaurants in the area to have one, and booked mariachi bands from Chicago. “This place would be packed, standing room only,” Mari said. At the time, “the only place you could really see Mexican bands was in Fairmont City, so there was a need for it to come out here.”
Sooner or later, any long-running restaurant has to navigate the transition that takes place when its founder leaves the stage. Ernestina Zegar passed away in February 2022, at 77, just a few months after her son, Sergio, also passed. Ernestina was still working at the restaurant, still cooking, until her final days. “She would have kept going up until she was 90,” Mari said. “She would not stop.”
Mari and her sister, Linda, were well-placed to take over the running of Acapulco, having worked at the restaurant in some capacity since they were in their early teens. “We were always a team as far as being front of house – everybody knows Linda, Mari and my mom,” Mari said. “So, the way we interacted with each other, the way we interacted with the customers – there’s an element missing, but it’s still the same.”
Mari said regulars might find it strange – as she does – not to see Ernestina tweaking the light switches to get the lighting just right, playing a game on the bartop, or greeting female customers with a warm “What’s up girlfriend?” However, her customers find it comforting to know that Acapulco remains open and that they can continue to enjoy Ernestina’s food, almost 50 years after that young woman from Oaxaca threw her heart and soul into her dream of opening a restaurant.
Acapulco Restaurant, 10114 St Charles Rock Road, St. Ann, 314.428.5621, acapulcorestaurantstl.com
Tags : Places, Restaurants