A workplace injury led to the eventual opening of a new Mexican restaurant on Cahill Main.

Tapatios Cocina Mexicana began operating in mid-April and is the first brick-and-mortar restaurant for owners Leticia and Daniel Hernandez. The Verona couple has operated a food cart, Cali Fresh, on the State Street Mall for almost four years.

The food cart continues to operate as a mobile taquiera, and the restaurant serves mostly family recipes.

Before they ever thought about entering the food-service industry, Daniel Hernandez had worked in construction “his whole life since he was really young,” his wife told the Star, including for a decade as a carpenter in California.

Born and raised in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Hernandez moved to Madison area in 2012 and met Leticia there the same year.

In early 2013, he fell off a roof, breaking his spine and forcing him to wear a back brace for months.

“Thank God he didn’t need surgery and he healed well,” Leticia said, “but there was that possibility of him not healing well. … I didn’t want him to go back to construction, and we were like, what are we going to do now?”

Her mother, who operates a grocery store and food cart in the area, suggested the couple think about buying a food cart that she had noticed was for sale. And that led to a new career in food service.

“She said why don’t you guys look into buying that because it could get you by,” Leticia recalled. “To be honest, we were stuck in a situation where he wasn’t working and things were just tough. So we decided to give it a try.”

Daniel worked for months in his back brace, remodeling the food cart and painting it, and in 2014, the Hernandezes began operating their cart.

“We were on the Library Mall, and we had a great turnout and built a really strong clientele base there,” Leticia remembered.

They have managed to keep their spot on the mall while their business steadily grew. And meanwhile, Leticia said, customers kept asking when the couple was going to open a restaurant.

They decided they were ready last year and spent a long time searching for the right place. Then one day last August, they noticed an open space in the Cahill Main shopping plaza that’s also home to a brewpub they like, the Great Dane, where they would often drive by on the way to downtown Madison.

“We thought it was a really cute plaza and maybe we’d find a place there someday,” she told the Star. “We didn’t push it at all and thought, if it’s meant to be it’ll happen.”

They fell in love with the space, and Daniel spent the fall and winter transforming the former pet store, which looked like “a white box,” into an attractive dining room with handsome booths and tables. He did all the work except the plumbing, his wife said.

Simple, evolving menu

The restaurant started with “a really basic menu,” Leticia said, “because we were coming from a food cart.”

The cart is a mobile taqueria, where people can grab a quick taco and other items merging the cuisine of Guadalajara with “a California twist.” That means adding things like cabbage, avocado and chopped cucumbers to boost the tacos’ flavor and texture.

The restaurant grew out of that and now features Mexican cuisine with recipes borrowed from her mother and Daniel’s grandmother. Leticia said the couple also included things that they like and think others would enjoy, too, like shrimp tacos, which Daniel acquired a fondness for while living on the West Coast.

A distinct weekend menu offers platters that are specifically from Guadalajara.

“That’s what tapatios is – somebody or something associated with Guadalajara,” Leticia explained.

The weekend specials are mostly family recipes, she said, and the couple adds more items as they get customer requests. Recently, they’ve planned to incorporate mole, enchiladas and a mole platter, which comes from Daniel’s family.

“It was his grandmother’s recipe, and then his mother taught me, and now I think I make a pretty fine mole,” Leticia said with a laugh. “Sometimes I’m a little insecure and wonder if people will like something, but that one I’m confident about.”

The restaurant serves beer but hasn’t gotten a license to sell hard alcohol yet. The couple has applied for that license and expect they’ll be making margaritas in the near future.

“On Cinco de Mayo, everyone really wanted a margarita,” Leticia lamented. “We get a lot of requests for that, and we want to give people what they want and give them a good experience.”

She said in the beginning, the idea was to open a restaurant that “would be more casual – just grab a taco and a beer.”

“But now I see that people enjoy sitting down and bringing their family and staying a while,” she added. “That’s the environment that we want to provide.”

Balancing family, work

Leticia said the biggest challenge has been finding the right balance of family and work. When they ran only the food cart, they were done by mid-afternoon and had lots of time to spend with their two young children.

But operating a restaurant that’s open 10 hours per day, seven days a week, is more difficult and time-consuming.

“You wouldn’t even imagine,” she said. “It’s been tough; this is a totally different rodeo.”

The Hernandezes look forward to the day when they’ll be in a position to hire a manager and devote more time to family.

“We value family a lot, so I think that’s our toughest challenge right now,” Letitica said. “But this is just the first starting months, and I feel like we need to be here now and get things going. I’m sure that once things are going well and things fall into place, we’ll find that time and balance.”

Contact Bill Livick at bill.livick@wcinet.com.