By Jeffrey V. Smith
The owners of Fajita Ritas, a new Tex Mex restaurant in Estes Park, hired an outstanding staff, but none are as dedicated as Rita. She can work all hours, doesn’t take breaks and never accepts a pay check.
Rita is actually the name the staff gave to their tortilla maker. The workhorse cranks out up to 900 fresh flour or corn tortillas an hour for use in the restaurant and for sale by the dozen. “Nobody here does fresh Tex Mex. In Texas, you can go anywhere and everyone has fresh tortillas. We were shocked. I was like, ‘what do you mean you order your tortillas?’. We just saw a real niche, a lack of quality, good, fresh food,” co-owner Shannon Mathena said.
Mathena and her husband, Drew, were ready for a change when they visited Estes Park on their wedding anniversary in 2014. Back in Austin, Mathena, a hard-working real estate manager for Bridgestone, had recently lost both her parents and Drew was toiling away his days in the commercial air conditioning industry. “I was tired of working for a cooperation and not having any time. I was working over 100 hours a week, had no control over my destiny and was traveling all the time,” she said. “So, we just decided if we are going to do it, we are going to work for ourselves. We may all be here hollering at each other, but at least we are here together.”
Once the couple saw Estes Park, they fell in love. They visited in the fall and had moved to town with their three children by the following spring. Just seeing their son Brady’s new school let them know they had made the right move. “In Austin, he was in an elementary school with 1,000 kids, just in elementary school,” Mathena said. “He gets lost and the teachers care less. We love the small school [in Estes Park]. He can look out at the Rocky Mountains instead of a parking lot.”
Work on their restaurant concept started right away and by April of this year, Fajita Rita’s was a reality. It opened in the former Grumpy Gringo. “We always have entertained and done big events and eaten out a lot,” Mathena said. “We knew our vision and knew we had to find the right people to help us carry it out. People who knew more than we did in the restaurant business.”
The Mathena’s ended up hiring Lana Puskarich, who previously worked at Cables Restaurant, as their bar manager and Chef Theresa Sherwood who came to them from Rocky Mountain Park Inn. “[Theresa] was there for 5 years, and I just walked in the door one day about to cry. She said, ‘I heard you were looking for a chef’ and I asked, ‘did you read my mind?’ So, everything just really worked out the way it was supposed to. It’s all fallen into place.”
Getting the restaurant up and running wasn’t exactly easy, but after a couple of months in operation, the reviews have been mostly positive. “There have been some bumps, but we have overcame them, and here we are. We knew if we could get the team together we could deliver the product,” Mathena said. “We knew we could make a difference in this community.”
Part of making the decision to move to Estes Park was Mathena’s notion they could bring something to town not already offered in mix of more than 80 local restaurants. “We could be a small fish, in a small pond, and still make a difference,” she said. “People have gotten used to this being a vacation community where people pay either way. Whatever is put on the plate, people pay for, because they don’t have a choice. We are fresh—but fattening—but our food is fresh and delicious.”
The restaurant’s menu features daily specials, including all-you-can-eat soup Sunday, margarita Mondays, taco Tuesdays, fajita Fridays and sangria Saturdays. It also includes a selection of made-fresh soups and green chili; steak, shrimp and chicken fajitas that serve 1-2 or 2-4; beef, shrimp, chicken and cheese enchiladas; a wide range of tacos including Mahi-Mahi, veggie, Texas beef and deep fried; taco and Southwest salads, rice and beans made from scratch daily, home-made guacamole and salsa and deserts including fried caramel churros. Most everything is served with Rita’s fresh-made tortillas. There is also a great kid’s menu.
The restaurant offers a daily happy hour from 4:30-6:30 p.m. featuring $2 draft beer—there’s 14 on tap including local Lumpy Ridge and Rock Cut brews—$4 house margaritas and house wine. Appetizer specials on guacamole, queso, “Linda’s Texas Caviar” and “Roof of the Rockies Nachos” piled as “high as a mountain” along with crispy street tacos for $3 are also available.
The bar is stocked with 70 varieties of tequila, the second most in Colorado and the margaritas are made with freshly squeezed lime and lemon juice and 100 percent blue agave tequila. Half of the wine selection is organic without sulfates. Enjoy a drink in the lounge or enjoy the views of Rocky Mountain National Park peaks from the deck.
The remodeled restaurant also offers areas for small parties, or the whole place can be rented. There is also a private banquet room with a patio that will hold up to 50 people. They also do catering. The entire menu can be prepared and delivered to almost any venue fresh and hot.
Stop in to welcome the Mathena’s and check out their fresh Tex Mex offerings and Rita’s amazingly fresh tortillas—which are sold off the menu for $6 a dozen—Sunday-Thursday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. There’s always plenty of room and parking. And, if you happen to meet the mixer, she’s called Bertha.
Fajita Rita’s is located at 1560 Big Thompson Ave. in Estes Park. Visit fajitaritasestespark.com or call 970-577-RITA for more information.
Originally published in the June 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly