CHELMSFORD -- Walking into the new Cancun Mexican Restaurant, it's easy to be taken by the cheerful mariachi music, colorful decor and beautifully presented dishes that transport you straight to the Yucatan.
Behind the air of celebration lies a story of salvation and serendipity.
Luis Ibarra, and his wife, Mayanin, of Pelham, N.H., opened the restaurant at 14 Chelmsford St. the last week of September after a difficult year for their family.
In May, they watched their popular, family-owned Colombian restaurant and bakery, Delicias Paisas, burn to the ground after several years in operation on Bridge Street in Lowell. Now, they're celebrating the success of their new restaurant, said Ibarra, 50.
"It's been like a rollercoaster," he said.
Ibarra came to the U.S. from Cali, Colombia, when he was 16 years old.
"Aug. 4, 1982 -- I still remember that day," he said.
He lived first in New York, where he met his wife. Ibarra worked in construction before entering the restaurant business, owning and operating bakeries and eateries with partners in New Jersey and Florida in the 1990s through 2007.
Ibarra had relatives in Lowell since the late 1980s, and in the 1990s, his uncle established Delicias Paisas. Ibarra bought the business from him while still living in Miami in 2001 and his parents ran it in his absence. During 2006 and 2007, he sold off his other assets as the economic downturn began and decided to move his family -- now including three sons -- to Lowell.
Shortly before the fire that destroyed the bakery, the Ibarras were considering closing their first Cancun Mexican Restaurant. They opened the restaurant on Pleasant Street in Dracut about a year ago, hoping to fill an underserved Mexican fare niche in the town.
Despite the popularity of the food, the restaurant wasn't doing well, Ibarra said. When they applied, Dracut could only offer the restaurant a beer and wine license, he said, leaving it unable to serve margaritas and other drinks made with hard liquor.
Ibarra first found the Chelmsford storefront up for lease in February when he drove by it, and decided to check it out.
Photo Gallery | Cancun, a new Mexican restaurant in Chelmsford
In April, Ibarra participated in a weekend men's retreat through St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Lowell, an experience he said changed his life and outlook. He said it brought to him a calmness and a certainty that everything happens for a reason.
When the deep fryer at Delicias Paisas caught fire the early morning of May 19 and burned the restaurant down, that calm carried Ibarra through the disaster.
"When I got there, it was devastating. All your dreams, all the things that you have worked for, it was destroyed just in a minute," Ibarra said. "But I was very calm, and I was very at peace -- like, 'I know this is happening, but it's going to be something for the better.' I just knew that it was going to be for the best."
After the fire, Ibarra moved some of the Colombian food to the Dracut Cancun, drawing many loyal Delicias Paisas customers and saving the failing restaurant.
He also immersed himself in preparing to open the new restaurant.
Ibarra commissioned local artist Thomas Halloran for a mural depicting the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and other artwork. Ibarra's wife was in charge of the rest of the decor, he said.
While the Ibarras are Colombian -- and chef Jose Chonay, of Lowell, is Guatemalan -- Chonay spent time in Mexico and knows the cuisine and its authentic flavors well, Ibarra said.
Chonay and Ibarra's wife crafted the menu, which features a bevy of popular and traditional Mexican dishes and a sampling of American fare such as burgers and wraps to please a wide variety of tastes.
You can start out with an appetizer of beef or chicken empañadas, nachos, or tostones, a fried green plantain dish served with house guacamole, cheese, pico de gallo and garlic sauce. For dinner there's a variety of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, enchiladas and chimichangas (fried burritos), or try a traditional seafood, chicken or steak dish, such as ceviche de camarones (shrimp), pollo ranchero or carne asada. There's also several vegetarian options and a kids' menu.
A house favorite is La Piñada, a grilled pineapple stuffed with marinated chicken and steak and grilled onions and peppers. It's topped with a bit of cheese and served with a side rice. If you like your food spicy, don't be shy about asking for the hot green salsa.
For dessert, there's traditional flan and tres leches, but Ibarra recommends the fried ice cream and the cheesecake chimichangas, both of which are customer favorites, he said.
Ibarra said he's appreciative of the community support for the restaurant, and that customers are understanding that his staff is working out the kinks that are known to happen with a new restaurant
"They know it's a fresh start, and they're coming to the restaurant and supporting the business," he said. "For that, I am very, very grateful."
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