Back when Wes Matthews was a Shasta High School student, he enjoyed meals at Senor Rosas, a popular Mexican restaurant hangout known for its understated ambiance and tasty, inexpensive food. At the time, Senor Rosas was owned by Charlie Nelson, a friend’s father.
“It was the best hangover food,” Matthews said with a laugh.
Today, Matthews, who’s also known as the chef and co-owner of Market St. Steakhouse, is back at Senor Rosas. But this time he’s on the other side of the counter as co-owner of Senor Rosa’s with his business partner, friend and Market St. Steakhouse colleague, Andy Freeman.
Matthews and Freeman, who both turn 30 in June, went to school together and both worked at Market Street Steakhouse, where Matthews was in the kitchen and Freeman was out front as one of the restaurant’s only male servers.
When Nelson decided to sell Senor Rosas and move away, Matthews and Freeman combined resources and bought the restaurant.
They painted the place, got new inside tables and chairs, and designated the plastic chairs as outdoor seating. They kept the tried-and-true name, and consulted with Nelson on a few things, but they also made many changes.
In addition to an interior cosmetic face lift that included enlisting the help of a friend to construct the register and serving counter (disclosure: that friend is my son Josh Domke), another friend created the new ornate metal gate outside the patio area, complete with a cursive metal “Senor Rosas” and red roses.
Matthews gave the menu an overhaul, helped along with some new equipment, including a grill for charring, and a huge wok stand, perfect for the rice.
In addition to more traditional pico de gallo, he also makes a roasted corn and black-bean salsa, a slow-roasted pork that he describes as more of a Hawaiian style, a red-snapper fish taco as well as roasted tomatillo salsa and a fruit salsa. His black beans have a touch of chocolate (provided by his chocolatiermother), and his seasonings include a pair of his top-secret creations, Mexican Orgy, and “Shiz” (so named by a pastry chef colleague who balked at referring to it by the less-refined, similar-sounding name Matthews had given it).
But whatever you do, don’t call Senor Rosas a Mexican restaurant, because, said Matthews, it’s not. In fact, he sees it as more “westernesque” than Mexican.
“Yes, there are definitely Mexican and Spanish influences,” he said as he peeled just-roasted peppers. “But we see it more as a cool, Spanish-style, fun place that serves fresh, surfer-town California food. Hey, burritos were invented for the hippies by the Mexicans, and besides, California was Mexico at one time, so this is perfect.”
Matthews, who grew up in professional kitchens owned and operated by his restaurateur parents, Nancy and Bryan Matthews, is the lead partner in the food side of Senor Rosas, while Freeman, who earned a business degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, is in charge of the business side, but is learning more about food and cooking every day.
Although Matthews – recent winner of the Iron Chef Redding title – lacks formal cooking education, he’s quick to point out the benefit of his informal, lifelong training.
“I never took a cooking class,” Matthews said as he tonged perfectly charred corn cobs on the grill.
“I didn’t have time for school because I was too busy learning in my parents’ restaurants. At 14 I was doing restaurant dishes, at 15 I was making salads, and at 17 I got thrown into the fire and became the head cook after the chef walked out.”
Senor Rosas now boasts nine employees, including 24-year-old Arne Aase, Matthews’ right-hand man, who is in charge when Matthews is gone, and divides his time between the newly opened Senor Rosas and the established Market St. Steakhouse.
Matthews and Freeman agree that for them, one of the best parts about their new venture is the more relaxed nature of the restaurant, which translates to fun.
“This is the opposite of Market Street – we call it the un-Market Street,” Matthews said, explaining that Market St. Steakhouse is more upscale, more fine-dining.
“Here, it’s more relaxed, people can watch us cook, and you see the customers face-to-face, so you can actually see if you’re pissing them off. We really have a good time. We play more rowdy music and we’re more laid back, but we have really fresh, quality food.”
Regarding that goal of quality food, Matthews is a culinary purist. He insists upon fresh, from-scratch cooking, something he does without the aid of a freezer or a can opener.
He starts each day with dried beans hydrated by an old-fashioned soaking, and a grill full of fresh-charred chicken breast, tri-tip, corn, tomatillos, and a variety of peppers that include Poblano, Anaheim, Jalapeno, and even a touch of Habanero.
The Senor Rosas partners see their place not so much as a destination, but a place where people can grab some quick but delicious food, whether for a trip to the lake or to take home for dinner later.
And they’ve not forgotten younger customers, for whom they’ve created a $1 taco with a choice of four meats; something they say is cost-effective for them and their customers.
Senor Rosas is set back off Eureka Way, flanked behind a Domino’s Pizza company and car repair shop on one side, and a gas station on the other. (If you’ve passed the Domino’s driveway, you’ve gone too far).
But Matthews said that hasn’t kept people from finding it.
“We’re doing between 80 and 100 lunches a day,” he said. “We only expect to grow.”
Even so, for now, Freeman and Matthews say they’ll start slow with the business, although they do plan to add beer, wine and sangria to the menu sometime soon, and they’d like to add catering to the mix. They’ve considered using the area behind the restaurant for music, and if there’s a demand for it, they might expand Senor Rosas’ hours.
Their business formula is fairly simple.
“What’s working, will work, and we’ll keep doing,” Matthews said. “And what’s not working, is not happening.”
Senor Rosas is located at 2030 Eureka Way in Redding. Its “hours of awesomeness” are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information or to-go orders call Senor Rosas at 241-TACO (8226).
Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.