Jugos Azteca is located at the center of Highland Park and is nearly impossible to miss. Usually, the line that forms out of the door and onto York Boulevard will grab your attention but if that’s not enough, the bright green color of the building and the equally-colorful umbrellas outside should do the trick. If both of those things still aren’t enough to catch your eye, the thought of raspados and aguas frescas should definitely give you the motivation you need to park your car and join the people in line. Efrain Peña and his family, who own and run Jugos Azteca, work tirelessly to keep business booming and their customers smiling. Although tweaks in their menu have helped maintain the business’ spot on York Boulevard, the Peña family’s relationship with their clientel and their hard work have made Jugos Azteca a neighborhood staple and a favorite for many who want good food and positive energy.
Jugos Azteca — sister restaurant to El Huarache Azteca (which boasts some of the most amazing Mexican food in Highland Park) — offers a variety of choices ranging from decadent bionicos to equally-amazing tostadas de camaron. Though the menu has been altered to include more organic juices, many still come in for food off of the original menu.
For the Peña family, work days start around 5:30 a.m., when they begin to prepare for the day’s customers. Efrain says that when they open their doors at 6:30 a.m., there are already people outside waiting to get their breakfast or a licuado to start their day. Customers move in and out of the small business throughout the day, some leaving with a plate full of food and others just stopping in for an agua fresca — all the while, the folks working in the kitchen — all members of Efrain’s family — don’t stop moving until all of their customers are served.
Having worked in the restaurant business for about 30 years prior to running Jugos Azteca, Efrain knows that hard work is essential for the maintenance of a business. According to Efrain, the workers gather once a month to talk about their business and to remind each other about the work they’re doing. If you peek inside the kitchen, you’ll also notice a sign that serves as a hand-written motivational speech for the workers. The labor of the Peña family doesn’t go unnoticed by their customers. For many, it has created a sense of comfort and trust between themselves and the business.
When I stopped by to talk to Efrain about his business, I had reached the lunch rush. It was Friday and everyone was lining up at the door to get the catch the last of the day’s special — the most delicious shrimp tostadas for only $1.25. As I talked to Efrain, a woman came up to us and asked if she could share one of her favorite memories of the Peña family. Efrain, who responded with a smile, listened as she spoke about a time when the Peñas were working at Huarache Azteca and the power suddenly went out. Efrain made an impression on her as he came out of the kitchen and told her not to worry, that their food would be served and they would leave the restaurant happy. “We loved that because it showed that he really loved his work,” she said. “I’ll never forget that day because I was tired from work and I wanted to go somewhere where they would serve me with honor and with respect.”
The business’ relationship with its customers and with the community are an integral part of the establishment and success of Jugos Azteca. Efrain and his family know many of the customers by name and sometimes by order. Efrain’s 18 year-old son Raul, who has helped out at the Jugos Azteca for about six years and is usually the man behind the counter, talked about how the family initially began advertising for their business and building their relationship with Highland Park. “The first year of us being owners, we would actually pass out flyers on the street. My dad would take Figueroa and I would take York and we’d put them on cars to tell people,” Raul said.
Regardless of what time, day or season it is, Jugos Azteca remains in the hearts and tummies of Highland Park. When asked how he felt about his business, Efrain responded with a simple “Estoy happy,” and we know for sure that the same thing can be said by all of the customers that drop by Jugos Azteca for a delicious meal or a welcoming smile.