Thirty-two years later, it’s still a family affair at El Cazador

Jose Rodriguez and his wife

Alonso Rodriguez can remember when “Lupe” stood only waist high and wandered around his parents’ Mexican restaurant looking for something to eat.

Rodriguez guesses Lupe was about 5 years old when he gave him a request that baffled him.

“I want to try a hamburger,” he told his uncle.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you eat burritos?”

Lupe is all grown up now, sporting a beard and carrying around grown-up

responsibilities while his taste buds have matured, too.

Still called Lupe by his family, Jose Rodriguez and his wife Natasha are owners of the El Cazador restaurant that has existed since before he was born.

This month, the restaurant is celebrating 32 years in Oak Harbor with a husband and wife team and extended family all working to carry on the traditional values established when Rodriguez’ parents opened the eatery in 1982.

Jose Rodriguez, 29, and his wife took over the restaurant seven years ago from his mother, Hilda, who ran the business for nearly two decades after her husband, Aurelio, died in 1989.

With the transition to the next generation came the expectation to continue El Cazador’s traditions of active community involvement and authentic Mexican dishes made from scratch.

Rodriguez, who was 4 when his dad died and learned the restaurant trade from his mother and extended family, welcomed the responsibility in a town he grew up in and in an environment he knew well.

A class of 2003 Oak Harbor High School graduate, he learned by bussing tables, providing table service and listening closely to his mother.

“She was very tied to the community,” said Natasha, a 2005 Oak Harbor graduate. “She taught him everything he knows.

“He’s very passionate.”

Rodriguez has benefitted from close proximity to other family as well. At the restaurant, he is surrounded by three “uncles” who provide both a link to El Cazador’s success and to a father he barely got to know.

Pepe Rodriguez is the head chef, while Alonso Rodriguez is the soux chef. Paco Rodriguez has been the restaurant’s bartender for more than 20 years.

All three are brothers and are cousins to Aurelio but to “Lupe” they’ve always been uncles.

“I love it,” Jose Rodriguez said about working with family. “When my dad passed away, I was only 4 years old. I didn’t really get a chance to know who my dad was. Now I’ve got a different perspective from my uncles how he was.

“They tell me, ‘You have the same vision and same drive that your dad had.’”

The three Rodriguez brothers are the restaurant’s “culinary geniuses,” Natasha  said.

“They are a link to our past and our culture. They hand make everything from this restaurant from scratch.”

And they let the Rodriguez husband and wife team focus on the keys to running the business.

“To me it’s community at the end of the day,” Jose said.