Sharing the table
By Michael Christen

Mario Mercado, 46, takes a moment to himself while waiting for customers at Mi Camino Real, the restaurant he has managed for 20 years in Leitchfield. “We are the first ones,” Mario says. “It was a little different for them (Leitchfield residents). We are all friends now. I feel like a celebrity. In a place like this, you get to know people.”

Business is in Mario Mercado’s name. The 46-year-old native of Jalisco, Mexico, carries a surname that directly translates to “market” from Spanish. As the manager of Leitchfield’s Mi Camino Real, it is a name he lives up to, whether he wants to or not.

Mario and his brothers, Alex, 43, who owns Mi Camino Real, and Kiki, 58, were the first to bring a taste of another culture to the area. Now celebrating 20 years in business at 208 White Oak St., just out of sight of the public square, the restaurant was Grayson County’s first Mexican-American business. It remains one of the few sit-down restaurants around.

“He brought a good change to Leitchfield, a very good change,” Roger Williams says while visiting the restaurant to celebrate his grandson’s 8th birthday. “We were here the first week he opened. He does a fantastic job with it. It is our favorite place to eat.”

Within the colorfully decorated walls of the restaurant where the aroma of frying oil and grilling meats greets diners, first dates have led to marriages and families have gathered year after year to celebrate milestones.

While customers enjoy a night out, behind the scenes, life in the restaurant business is not easy for Mario and his staff, who work late nights and must balance a myriad of responsibilities.

“This job is nothing but stress,” Mario says, as he tallies receipts at the front counter during a lull in the dinner rush. “You worry about paying the bills. When something happens, the first thing that slows down is restaurants. When it is slow, super slow, it worries me. It just kills the business.”

Despite new hardships sparked by rising prices, Mario remains positive.

“You choose to live sad or happy,” Mario says. “You can’t live a sad life.”

Mario, who became an American citizen in 2010, takes pride in knowing his business provides for his three children Alexis, 17, Rio, 10, and Kylo, 7, and the restaurant’s 12 employees who are all from Mexico, and send much of their earnings to their families 2,000 miles away.

While jobs in Mexico only pay about $80 a week, staff at the restaurant take home $600.
Customer Melani Crawford, 58, practiced her Spanish at the restaurant while studying at Western Kentucky University. It is also where she and her husband had their first date.

“He represents bringing in the Hispanic view of everything,” says Melani. “It is just a good group of people, and they have become like family. I really like these guys. They were so welcoming and the community was welcoming as well.”

Mario’s cellphone displays a family photograph of his brother, El Camino Real owner Alex Mercado, 43. “He always saved his money,” says Mario, who manages the restaurant for his brother.

Eddie Cortez Erik Ortiz, 19, carries a load of freshly washed dishes during the dinner rush at Mi Camino Real. Eddie is one of 12 Mexican immigrants employed at the restaurant.

Mario (from left) discusses the restaurant’s inventory with waiters Jose Eduardo Contreras, 25, and Miguel Angel Rodriguez, 28. The cost of produce and meat has increased significantly recently, leaving the restaurant struggling to keep prices from increasing. “I was losing money on chicken,” Mario says. “This is a small town. There is not much industry so we can’t raise prices like crazy.”

Cook Vidal Contreras, 45, speaks to his wife, Blasinda, 42, who lives in Mexico, on a video call during a lull in business. It has been three years since the two last saw one another in person.

Michael Wilson, 57, gives Mario hot peppers he grew on his property from his pickup truck parked behind Mi Camino Real. Mario accepted two large plants laden with peppers. He said they were probably too spicy to be served in the restaurant.

Mario embraces his son Rio Mercado, 10, as they watch his youngest son, Kylo Mercado, 7, take part in an activity during a Halloween celebration at Caneyville Elementary School. “Kids, they are amazing,” Mario says. “I love kids. It gives you the energy to keep going, knowing you are doing something good.”

Waiter Eddie Contreras, 41, sticks a bowl of whipped cream in the face of Denny Bealow to celebrate his 54th birthday as Mario (from left), Jose Eduardo Contreras, 25, and Miguel Angel Rodriguez, 28, watch with Chris Collins, 33, (seated at far left). Bealow, a 13-year employee of New York Blower and a Leitchfield resident, was celebrating his birthday for a third time at Mi Camino Real. Bealow says the colorful atmosphere and food keep him coming back.

Mario gives Rio a hug while he holds Kylo’s hand as the three walk into Caneyville Elementary School for Rio’s academic team meeting. Rio has read 47 books this school year. “I am just really good at it,” Rio says. “I like big books because it takes longer for them to end, especially because I like the story.”

Another day comes to an end at Mi Camino Real. Located at 208 W. White Oak St. on one of Leitchfield’s main thoroughfares. “Everybody knows us,” Mario says.