The One-Man Restaurant: Angel Linares

Angelo’s, just outside Roanoke in the town of Vinton, Va., is about as unassuming as restaurants get.  It’s a squat space, white with brown shingles, and conjoined on one side to a pawn shop and art gallery.  Angel Linares opened his doors 26 years ago, and as if to match the bare-bones aesthetic of the building, he’s been serving simple, authentic Mexican fare ever since.

Linares’s restaurant is empty at 1:30 p.m. on a drizzly Wednesday. The owner greets me as I step into the small dining room.  He’s a stocky man with gentle features and a thick, white mustache.  A piñata hangs over the only table in the house, but Linares shows me to the diner-style counter, which wraps around and forms one side of the small, intimate kitchen.  Past the lunch hour, the regulars have already come and gone—a slow day, he says, because of the rain.

“If you’d been here yesterday, I wouldn’t have had space for you,” he says.  It’s not hard to believe, especially since the restaurant itself seems equipped to seat only about 10 diners at once.  The reason for the small digs is simple: Linares runs the joint solo. He’s host, chef, saucier, waiter, and dishwasher—a lot of hats to wear while still delivering top-notch food.

When I ask which dish is his favorite to prepare, he answers simply and emphatically, “Meat.”  I comply with an order of steak enchiladas.

The rest of the menu is populated by classic Mexican fare, including tacos, chilaquiles, a Mexican omelet, and some American-style favorites to keep the less-adventurous locals happy.  His most popular item?  “Everything,” he says.  “Everything is popular.”

Linares makes a point of cooking every element of each dish to order, and for our enchiladas, he begins with a salsa, puréed in a food processor beside the grill.

“You like it spicy?” he asks.  He flashes a smile when I answer, “Of course. Why not?”

As he begins to carve two hulking steaks, fresh from his meat supplier, Linares’s loquacity begins to take over.  He tells me about his disdain for restaurant franchises and processed food—how the slow, natural way of cooking (i.e. his way) is the only way he’s willing to operate.

“For 58 years, I’ve tried to educate Americans about processed food,” he says, “to get them to eat clean and natural.”

Before moving to Vinton and opening his own place, Linares lived and worked in Washington, D.C., in his uncle Ernesto’s restaurant.  It was there that he claims to have single-handedly introduced nacho chips to the United States—a bold statement that he affirms with a smile and a nod.  “I’ve served customers from all over, from all over America,” he says.

As Linares continues to cook—thick slices of steak hissing on the gas grill—I can’t help but wonder why such a self-purportedly innovative and well-traveled chef would choose to house his talents in this cramped, slightly dingy restaurant.  Then again, though, is there any better way to show respect for food than to make it the sole star of the show, without peripheral frills?  It seems to be working for him; he’s been in business for a quarter century and survives on a reputation built by word-of-mouth alone.

By the time Linares slides the slices of meat into a now-bubbling dark sauce of secret ingredients, the tiny restaurant is saturated with the spicy, rich smell of his native cuisine.  He lays soft tortillas on the grill and brings out vegetables for garnish.  My eyes begin to water as he chops an onion. I ask if he ever has the same problem.

“From onions, no,” he says.  “I’ll tell you, the only time I cry was when I was young and my girlfriend left me.  That was the only time.”  Again, a wry smile.  Growing up, Linares tells me, he lived in the small Mexican town of Capulhuac, which translates loosely to “cherry tree close to the water”—an aptly-named home for a burgeoning chef.

My tears subside as Linares puts the finishing touches on my food.  He wraps the meat and cheese in the tortillas, presses them closed, then submerges them again into the steaming brown sauce.  After another handful of cheese goes on top of the enchiladas, he serves them up, three to a plate, beneath lettuce, onions, and sour cream, with a side of fried potatoes.  I grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator beside the counter, and lay into the generous portion.

Turns out, the Vintonites have been coming back for a reason.  Linares’s food is bold and flavorful. The gradually-simmered sauce has a richness granted by both stove time and carefully selected ingredients.  The steak is tender and retains much of its natural flavor; it’s plain to see why Linares doesn’t need to marinate it beforehand.  Even the potatoes—cooked on the side while the main artistry developed in the saucepan—stand out.  They’re crispy, have just the right amount of salt, and give the plate a satisfying textural balance.

I had asked Linares to make my order spicy, and he didn’t spare me.  After a few bites, I’m sweating and beginning to tear up all over again.  It’s not a painful burn, but a low, building heat that complements the other elements coming together in the dish.  That doesn’t stop my face from reddening or the tears from flowing.  Linares notices this, and gives me some humbling news: I’m only eating the “American Spicy” version of his food.

I wipe the moisture from my eyes with a napkin.  “What,” Linares quips, “Did your girlfriend leave you too?”  I can’t help but laugh, tears and all.

As I finish my meal, belly full and pride thoroughly in check, Linares offers me a special dessert:  a piece of “real Aztec chocolate” cut from a small block he keeps under the counter.  He smiles as I eat and compliment its spiciness and complexity. “That’s pure Mexican chocolate, nothing more,” he says.

Linares is clearly a man in touch with his culture, which emerges through his food and hearty conversation.  This intimate restaurant is the perfect venue to share his many gifts with customers, loyal patrons and transients alike.  Vinton might seem like an unlikely place for a seasoned master of Mexican cuisine to call home, but taste his food, enjoy his stories, and you’ll know that Linares is authentico.  Just try not to let him see you cry.