Elena’s Mexican Restaurant to unveil bar, open at night
By Christine Bolaños
When Elena Soto arrived in the United States from Mexico she carried something special with her. A love and gift of authentic Mexican cooking that she passed on to her daughter Gracie Soto.
“In the U.S. her first job was waiting tables at restaurants,” said Gracie Soto, who took over Elena’s Mexican Restaurant after her mother retired. “Here and there she learned different recipes, got ideas and learned management and how the system worked in the restaurant business.”
Elena Soto opened her own restaurant in 2001 in Cedar Park. When the building the restaurant was located in was sold, the Sotos relocated the business to Liberty Hill. Elena’s Mexican Restaurant, formerly known as Atzimba’s, has called Liberty Hill home since 2003.
The ladies wanted to offer locals the type of food they craved.
“More of authentic Mexican cuisine,” Gracie Soto explained. “We noticed there wasn’t anything here except for the Highway Café and thought it’d be a good location.”
The restaurant has become a community icon of sorts that commonly sponsors Liberty Hill school events, via advertisements and donations. When Elena Soto told her daughter she was planning to retire and sell the business, Gracie Soto knew she needed to step up.
She had spent a couple of years studying dental hygiene at a community college and was unsure she wanted to practice the craft as a lifelong profession. When her mother gave her the news, she knew her place was at the restaurant to keep her mother’s and the restaurant’s legacy alive.
Gracie Soto grew up in the restaurant business with her first exposure to what it takes to run a successful place at the age of 12.
“I really love the restaurant,” she exclaimed. “I really love being here. I could really see myself doing this for a long time.”
She recalls looking forward to spending time at the restaurant each day after classes ended during middle school.
“I always wanted to go the restaurant after school and be there and hanging out in the kitchen or watching my mom cook,” Soto shared. “It was a lot of fun.”
She remembers how cool her friends thought she was because she had a job and spending money.
“‘You’re only 13,’ they’d say. I’d say, ‘Yeah, my mom has a restaurant,’” she added. “I helped her out and it made me proud. It made me want to keep going.”
Once she reached high school, Soto became more involved with the restaurant. She advanced from cleaning tables, helping out in the kitchen, washing dishes and helping her mother cook, to waiting tables at the age of 16.
She enjoyed her new responsibility and looked forward to working after school.
A couple of her girlfriends landed jobs at the restaurant making the environment even more attractive for Soto.
“It wasn’t a job to me because we’d go to work and hang out,” she chuckled.
Once she reached the end of high school she found herself uncertain of her future.
Soto’s mother wanted her to study business. She always thought of herself as going to college. But there was something missing — she just didn’t feel the passion for dental hygiene she felt she needed to have.
Then she realized it was because she was meant to be a restaurateur.
“About a year ago she told me she wanted to retire and that she was going to sell the business and it scared me,” Soto recalled. “I said, ‘No. I love the restaurant. I want to keep it.’ She said, ‘Well, if you want to keep it you’re going to have to take over and that’s when it really came down to it.’”
So at the age of 25, Soto found herself taking over the family business.
“I learned from my mom how hard you have to work, how to handle employees, management,” she said. “The rest I’m learning on my own. I still learn every day.”
Soto is busy not just carrying on the family’s legacy but expanding it. She now opens the restaurant during the evening and is opening the bar on Nov. 20.
“It came about because it was on high demand from customers,” Soto said of the decision to open late. “Give people what they want.”
Customers would often ask for beer or margaritas and Soto got tired of saying they didn’t offer those items. Elena’s Mexican Restaurant will begin offering beer, margaritas, cocktail drinks and wine once the bar opens.
She also introduced new appetizers to the menu with the new hours. These include nachos, quesadillas, mini tacos and street tacos.
She hopes the changes will continue to attract longtime as well as new customers.