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Beacon Hill Mexican cafe is known for its authenticity

Shelly Runyon
Beacon Hill Mexican cafe is known for its authenticity
Julie King, owner of Villa México Café offers up one of her prize-winning burritos. Also, her famous “black salsa” is shown. Villa México Café is located inside Grampy’s Gas Station at 296 Cambridge St. in Beacon Hill. (Photo: Shelly Runyon)

Tucked into the back of Grampy’s Gas Station near Massachusetts General Hospital in Beacon Hill is Villa México Café.

It’s nothing fancy. The business runs off two grills, one microwave and a counter, which takes up the back third of the convenience store. But it is home to Boston’s “Best Burrito” three years running.

“More than a restaurant it’s my house,” said owner Julie King, 54, “and my customers are not my customers, they are my friends.”

King likes to be known as “Julie para los amigos” or Julie for her friends, and she reinforces that reputation by greeting each customer the same, “Hello my friend.”

Energetic, she works long hours and creates food that reflects her passion for authentic cooking. As a minority small-business owner, King has experienced more than her share of obstacles. With two restaurants that closed behind her, the third seems to be the charm, though it too may be short-lived.  

King was a lawyer in Mexico City with a restaurant on the side. When she met her husband, an American Naval officer, they moved to the U.S. and she decided not to pursue a career in American law, but to enjoy raising her daughter Bessie.

King’s husband fell ill and passed away when Bessie was a teenager, and King decided to start over in a place where she could give her daughter an excellent education. In 1998, the family of two moved to Massachusetts. The idea for Villa Mexico did not come out of necessity for work, but rather, a craving.

“When I wanted to have Mexican food,” King said, “I just started going to different places … and I went to one place and another place and I said, they don’t know how to cook.”

She said that one day she was walking through Woburn Center where they lived at the time and “saw a little spot, and for some kind of miracle, this place, my God, was very cheap. So I said this restaurant is going to be a Mexican restaurant and I will show the people what is our authentic Mexican food!”

But her first restaurant, Villa México Café, burned down. Forced to restart she opened Julie’s Fayre by Villa Mexico in downtown Woburn, or what she refers to now as “Villa México Two.” The second restaurant was 30 tables, six times the size of “Villa México One” and it overwhelmed  King and her staff.

She fell ill from too many 14-hour days, and after a short run, she decided to close the doors to preserve her health.  King rested for more than a year, and when her passion reignited she searched for a new, smaller location. That is when she discovered a counter in a convenience store where the wife of the convenience store business owner was serving Ethiopian food — and struggling.

“She cooks excellent Ethiopian food,” King said. “She started cooking here and it was too much for her … I saw the spot and they told me ‘I think that we need Mexican food’ because in those days we didn’t have Mexican food in the area, so I said, ‘I will make this work.’ ”

“Villa Mexico Three” was an instant hit in the neighborhood, especially with the Mass General Hospital crowd. They are her most loyal customers and give her the bulk of her referrals. Most days around noon there is a line of scrub-clad customers out the door of Grampy’s Gas Station, surgical masks still hanging around their necks.

She often makes trips to the hospital to bring food to patients and for her regular clients she will not only deliver, but will also make food off the menu upon request.  The care that she gives her customers means that everyone gets her attention and food is made to order. But the wait can be long.

There are two similar restaurants within a few blocks, Viva Burrito in the West End and Anna’s Taqueria. Both are larger restaurants with more seating and a quicker pace.

Anna’s is the closest competition. It is a “Mission Style” Mexican restaurant where workers put together burritos in an assembly-line, which will get a customer in and out in less than five minutes even with a wait.

King said that both restaurants take a different spin on burritos, and she is the only one serving authentic Mexican.

“I always say, ‘The sun is for everybody,’ ” she said says with a smile. She admits that the competition is good for her.  Villa México Café stands apart because “Everything is fresh. The quality, the service, the attention you give to customers: that is what is going to make you unique.”

She emphasizes the “homemade” quality of her cuisine. King offers a mole poblano that takes two days to make, a sauce which came from her grandmother’s kitchen in Puebla, Mexico. Her fruit water is made with fresh fruit and tastes like the dew of the fruit itself.

Her signature salsa is dark brown, almost black, and the flavors jump off the tongue — not too spicy, just tangy and smoky. King said that because she was classically trained as a chef before she opened her first restaurant in Mexico, she knows what she is doing and can do it anywhere. That might turn out to be her saving grace.

Suzanne Besser, executive director of Beacon Hill Civic Association said that C. Talanian Reality, the property owner of the gas station, has been preparing for more than five years to convert the lot into office buildings, but is holding off until the economy improves.

“They have gone through all of the approval process,” she said. “I don’t know how soon it will be but they are going to tear up the gas station and the great little Mexican restaurant that everybody likes. It’s a going to be big building; they will have offices on the top floor and the bottom will be retail.”

The last that King heard, she might be pushed out as early as this year. She is not happy and said there has been little support for her from the Beacon Hill Civic Association, which she describes as “hard to work with.”

She said that being a minority business owner has been a real challenge.

“For me, being woman first, and then Mexican, it has been very tough.”

King said that people don’t always take her seriously. “They say that women don’t have the right to have things done or they take a little longer time,” she said. “It has been very difficult. I tell you it has been causing serious problems sometimes. I go to the bank and I try to get a loan, and they say ‘no’ because you don’t have any support … which is why I can’t expand.”

Space in Beacon Hill runs about $10,000 per month on the low end, King said, and she imagines that it would be hard to turn a profit at that rate. Without the possibility of renting a nearby location, she is seeking alternative solutions.

“Probably I will have a little cart in the corner,” she said, smiling and laughing, “doing burritos. And it’s going to be better because with that I will only be paying my permit and don’t pay any rent. God will decide in the future, I just live day by day.”