Near the top of Lord Edward street in Dublin is Café Azteca, a Mexican restaurant reminiscent of the many small restaurants that dot North America. The type of restaurant that looks like an extension of someone’s colourful home. It was there before the burrito craze gripped Dublin in the 2000’s, it’s seen a lot of trends come and go but it’s remained authentic and timeless.
Hugo Camacho Romero is the ebullient owner. He has lived in Ireland since the 90’s with Joan, his wife and the Café Azteca’s company secretary. The journey to owning the café was a long and winding one but testament to Hugo’s positivity and hard work he realised his ambition in 1995 when he spotted the premise, it took till 1999 to open it officially.
Learning how to cook from his granny
Hugo did not set out to open a restaurant when he was younger but food just seemed to find a way into his life when he grew up in Mexico City. “My father died when I was very young so my mother had to work. My granny raised me. As a result I spent my young stage of life with my granny, who was a fantastic cook. It was the best training I could ever have learned. I saw everything.” He grows animated at the memory of her taking him to the food markets. He would study everything she said and did, it left an indelible mark on him. When his granny became too feeble to cook for the family he was given the mantle, “I took over the cooking in the family. That was amazing. It was now just me going to the market to select the ingredients but it was nice because the people at the market knew me because of my granny.”
He got hooked on water polo
At that time his all consuming love was water-polo. “I was in a club in Mexico City and they had different sports but I always loved going to the pool. One time, the young water polo team came to do their training, the coach told me to leave the pool. I felt really bad and said, ‘No, I don’t want to leave’. The kids were laughing and having so much fun. Their behavior was different, they looked cool. I loved that.”
“So I said to the coach, ‘Can I join you?’ He said to me, ‘Can you swim?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ It was a 25 metre pool. He said, ‘when they pass again, you come back and you do breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke, every kind of stroke!’ When I finished all those strokes he said to me, ‘Join them.’ And from there I started playing. I started winning tournaments and then was selected for the national team. I played for Mexico for nine years.’”
Ireland would not recognise his qualifications
Hugo’s law studies meant that he had to abandon playing for the national team as it took too long to get to practice. He decided that when he graduated that he would travel to all the countries he never got to see with the water polo team. That ambition led him to Paris, a city that he fell in love with. Surreptitiously he found a water polo club that gave him a visa to stay and he met Joan there too. It was Joan who introduced him to traditional Irish music, a sound that captivated him.
Upon relocating to Ireland he learned that the law society would not recognise his law degree and master’s degree, an unfair policy that rankled with him because it meant that he had to reinvent himself again. Inspired by the Irish music he heard with Joan in Paris he decided to study the flute at the pipers club with Paul McGrattan and the tin whistle with Harry Long at Waltons for the Royal Irish Music examinations in traditional music. “It was fantastic, both those men became very important people in my life here in Ireland. I enjoyed all of it. But I had to get a job, so I worked for a coffee shop that isn’t around anymore. Because I worked in different restaurants in Paris I climbed quickly. I loved the place and I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have a place like this for myself.” In the evenings he worked as a delivery driver for a Chinese restaurant but used that time to scout out potential restaurant spaces and in 1995 he found Café Azteca.
The Irish and Mexicans are so similar
“The Irish are friendly, they’re full of beans, they’re lively. They’re like the Mexicans in so many ways. They’re cracking jokes all the time. They’re sarcastic. They laugh at bad things as well.” It is that similarity that has driven him to be an ambassador for Mexican food.
Hugo is tenacious, his life story to date shows that he swerves with the hits and adjusts his sails. Despite the frustration of not being able to practice law in Ireland he found himself drawn back into food and music. Both areas fit him so well because he loves to play host and is very creative. “First of all if you’re going to cook you have to do it with lots of love and passion.. You must use all your heart.” Most of his recipes are in his head, “they have been passed down from generation to generation but Mexican food is all about the person, you adjust your flavours for them. It should make them happy.”
He glows with pride when he speaks about his wife and three children, yet perhaps because of them, he also feels a huge responsibility to make sure that Mexican food and culture is represented well in Ireland. “I want to promote Mexican culture through the food. I represent all Mexican states in my cooking. I run classes here to teach people how to cook Mexican food. Now we’re hitting almost seven thousand people in the cooking classes since I started. It’s a lot of people, not including the people that they then cook the meals for. Some people go to restaurants and they’ve been told they had Mexican food, but if you come here they don’t compare. You can come here and taste real Mexican food, because if you don’t like it, at least we’re not lying.”
Hugo has embraced the Irish culture through his regular pilgrimages to County Clare to play traditional music, to forming deep friendships with the locals. He’s honest about who he is and that to him is what Mexican food is, honest and welcoming. It’s cooked from the heart and not motivated by a marketing whim. The love and intrigue of food that his granny transferred to him he now wants to pass on to the people of Ireland, an honourable mission.