There are currently seven La Carretas in a 10-mile radius in Lynchburg. No other Mexican restaurant in the city reaches those numbers, and there are only two more McDonald’s restaurants than La Carretas in Lynchburg. The only other cultural food to rival the restaurants in Lynchburg is Asian cuisine.
But La Carreta, which first opened in Madison Heights in 1987, also has a footprint across the U.S. There are restaurants in New Hampshire, Indiana, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. And all of them are owned by friends or family of the original owner here in Lynchburg.
“You name the town, name the city, I’ll tell you who they are and how we’re related,” said Jesus Roberto Arellano, a general manager at the La Carreta on Timberlake Road. Arellano and his uncle, Jesse Aguirre, just have opened the restaurant after shuttering another on the same road.
The new one is almost double in size, made with materials transported from Mexico and painstakingly designed. Chairs are upholstered with clay-red leather, and wicker lamps hang from the ceiling. Black and white photos from Mexico, a scorpion, cow skull and other ornaments adorn the wall.
The new restaurant opened May 7, around the time of Liberty University’s graduation and Mother’s Day. “That week was really stressful,” Aguirre said.
The most popular dish is talabera, which is grilled chicken served on a bed of rice and covered with cheese.
“My mom used to make more — we call guisados — it’s just like, different things,” Aguirre said. “It can be pork, it can be steak, it can be chicken — with potatoes or mushrooms.”
Both Arellano, 28, and Aguirre have worked in the restaurants since they were teenagers, starting out washing dishes.
“[I knew] since I was little,” Aguirre said, when asked when he knew what he’d do for a living. “When you’re young, and you start serving tables, you can make as much money as a part-time degree.”
The store originally was started by Aguirre’s uncle. It was the second Mexican restaurant in Lynchburg at the time, Aguirre said. Now — just on his mom’s side — he guesses there are more than 50 such restaurants, Many of them were started by others in the family, but some are family friends.
“This was the gold rush of our family, of our town in Mexico,” Arellano said, who added others from Jalisco, Mexico, also started restaurants in the U.S. Born in Los Angeles, California, Arellano said he wouldn’t change where he is “for anything.”
La Carreta Mexican Restaurant Opens Newest and Largest Location
From the June 2014 Lynchburg Business Magazine
To any Lynchburg local, La Carreta is more than just a familiar Mexican restaurant—it has become a Lynchburg icon. With seven locations in the Lynchburg area, La Carreta has made a name among locals that has withstood their 27-year history in the community. In July 1987, this family-owned and operated restaurant began on Timberlake Road, right in Lynchburg. This was the first of the La Carreta chains on the East Coast. Since that original endeavor, seven total restaurants have been started by family members locally, with the oldest two restaurants being the Timberlake Road and Madison Heights locations. Since opening the original restaurant in Lynchburg, dozens of other La Carreta restaurants have also been planted in places such as Tennessee by extended family members.
Aguirre, whose parents and family were born in Mexico, is himself from California. After moving to Virginia, he first started working at the original Madison Heights location when he was just 16 years old, washing dishes and moved his way up the ladder. By the time he was 18, he was a busboy in Madison Heights and then became a waiter by the age of 20. Since 2004, he has been the manager at the Timberlake restaurant.
Since the original building on Timberlake was always leased by La Carreta, one of the biggest differences in the new restaurant compared to the old one is that the family now owns the new location. The amount of time and money put into the new building also far exceeds any previous project that they have worked on.
Striving to make the new restaurant as authentic as possible, the family sourced approximately 75 percent of their building materials from Mexico. Custom Structures, Inc., a leading architectural design and build firm in Central Virginia, was the primary architecture firm on the project. Aguirre’s nephew, Robert Arellano, Jr., along with Scott Elliott of Custom Structures, took personal interest in the project by journeying to Mexico. While preparing to go, they gathered rolls of plans and measurements and began to collaborate with their Mexican colleagues as to who could source all the products needed. Continuing with their business motto to keep things tightly-knit within the family, the contract they got down in Mexico was actually from one of Aguirre’s cousins. Three tractor trailers holding 20 tons of product followed them back to Lynchburg carrying terra cotta, floor tile, stone work and food decorations, including the tables and chairs needed for the restaurant.
“Custom Structures and my nephew Robert have done a tremendous job,” Aguirre said.
The first trip to Mexico was the main journey when extensive, detailed measurements and planning took place, but throughout the process, three separate trips were ultimately made to make sure the items going into the trailers were precisely what they had planned. Each time, someone was down there for about a week at a time.
A new feature that can be found within the new building, situated just in front of Lowe’s, is a small stage where Aguirre hopes to showcase a live mariachi band and potentially even karaoke. Compared to their previous space, this new building now has an occupancy of 188 persons as opposed to their previous capacity of 118. The new location also has a bar, and a much larger kitchen. Even the entrance was designed to greet guests with an impressive chandelier and welcoming environment beginning before guests even enter the structure. In Spanish, the term “la Carreta” is defined as a simple two-wheeled oxcart. Appropriately, guests are greeted outside of the building with a large oxcart, as well as the feeling that they might have just stepped across the border.
“We care about the good taste of our food as well as providing our customers with personal, hospitable service,” La Carreta’s website states. “Our mission is simple: to serve you the best authentic Mexican food and drink possible at a comfortable price.”
Striving toward that mission, one main menu difference Aguirre said guests will experience at the new location is that, when first seated, customers will now have the option of ordering fresh guacamole. Prior to this change, guacamole was made early each morning, but in the new location, customers will be able to see it made fresh at the table, with the option to choose which ingredients they prefer more or less of, including extra onions and hot peppers. The other new item featured on the menu that they have revamped is their tortillas. Previously, the restaurant purchased pre-packaged tortillas but now tortillas will be made fresh each day on-site. Aguirre said they will have the dough sitting there ready to be made fresh in their new tortilla machine, and guests will also be able to watch through a glass as it’s being made.
Many of the beloved elements of La Carreta will remain the same, however. Keeping in line with the family theme, they will continue with all their family recipes that have been made the same since the first day they opened.
The newest of the family owned restaurants definitely aims to romance customers with an authentic Mexican experience right in the heart of Central Virginia. As their website emphasizes, “We at La Carreta Mexican Restaurant pride ourselves on providing our customers with a unique and pleasurable dining experience. We are proud to be part of this beautiful community in which we serve and hope to always make your time with us enjoyable.”