SOUTH PORTLAND — Taco Trio reopened Thursday with a crowd of customers, new Mexican specialties and an increased dedication to the environment.
The owners also hope to eventually expand in Knightville, although their Portland restaurant remains closed.
The restaurant at 119 Ocean St., on Legion Square, is owned by Manuel Pena and his wife, Karen Rasmussen. They closed the business last November due to illnesses in the family.
Pena, 53, was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer about two years ago, and was initially told he had one to three years left. More recently, Rasmussen’s father became ill and was in and out of the hospital. Between family concerns and running two restaurants seven days a week, the couple decided they needed a break.
Pena on Friday said his father-in-law is doing much better, and his own cancer is under control. He has had surgery, hormone treatment and chemotherapy. He said he is doing better than expected and remains optimistic – and realistic.
“I feel great, (although) I’m not 100 percent,” he said.
Still, he talked enthusiastically about changes at Taco Trio.
The restaurant now has a larger salsa bar, with new options. The menu will feature weekly regional specialties from the Yucatan Peninsula and from the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. There will be some new fish dishes and new moles, including green, yellow, brown and black, plus new tamales and new specialty drinks.
Pena said some of the new dishes will be things “people in Mexico are very familiar with, but people here may not have heard of.”
Pena, who is from Celaya, Guanajvato, Mexico, and moved to the United States in 1989, said he plans to introduce the new dishes with photographs that will also be posted on Facebook to “feed the eye first.”
Also included will also be more vegetarian specials, in part because Rasmussen does not eat meat.
Looking at her husband Friday in the restaurant, she joked, “Manny, feed the vegetarians, we’re hungry.”
During lunch Friday, Amanda Salovitch, who works as a manager at a nearby TD Bank, stepped up the counter and said, “I’m so glad you are open again.”
Salovitch, who said she used to frequent the eatery once or twice a week before it closed, loves Mexican food. She called Taco Trio the best, most authentic Mexican restaurant in the area.
Carter Scott, of South Portland, said she eats at Taco Trio about once a week and has patronized the restaurant since it opened in 2011. Scott learned of the reopening on Thursday through Facebook, where the news was widely distributed and celebrated. According to Pena, there were more than 40,000 Facebook views the first day.
“They have really good, simple food,” Scott said. “The staff is always incredibly friendly and happy to see customers.”
Pena said restaurant will initially be open four days a week – Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. It will be open six days a week beginning in March, and closed on Mondays.
“We need a day off,” said Pena.
Because the couple is cutting back their workload, their Portland restaurant, at 1706 Forest Ave., will not reopen.
The South Portland restaurant, meanwhile, is stepping up its commitment to the environment.
Rasmussen said about 99 percent of organic garbage and materials will be composted, with a little recycling, too. There will be no trash pick-up at the restaurant, which also recycles its cooking oil.
Food service items such as food containers, plates, cups, straws and utensils are all compostable. The utensils, which look like regular plastic utensils, are made from potato starch.
Rasmussen said the only item not compostable is foil used to tightly wrap burritos, which is recyclable. She said they are still looking for a green equivalent.
Rasmussen said she and Pena have always been focused on being environmentally friendly, and composting is something they have wanted to do for a long time. She cited the availability of products and costs as roadblocks. Rasmussen said some of the compostable items are more expensive, but it is cheaper to have the compost picked up then garbage.
Rasmussen said there are plans to install solar panels on the roof, and they also would like to add a dining room and a larger bar on the second floor.
Pena said he is grateful to the people of Portland and South Portland for their support. He said many people came forward and offered help after finding out the restaurant was closing last fall.
“It’s been very heartwarming to see so many people, every day, wanting to help,” he said.
Since Thursday, people driving by have been honking their horns, waving, and coming in to say they are happy Taco Trio is back.
“It has been overwhelming,” Pena said. “I am very grateful.”
Manuel Pena laughs at a joke while preparing an open-plate burrito Friday, Feb. 17, at Taco Trio on Ocean Street in South Portland. The popular, 6-year-old restaurant, which closed last November because of illnessess in the family, is open again.
Taco Trio, at 119 Ocean St. in South Portland, is open for business after a nearly 4-month hiatus.
Manuel Pena and Evelin Sanchez work the grill Friday at Taco Trio in South Portland.