Daisy Vargas would have probably been happy the rest of her life being a mental health therapist.
But luckily for her devoted fan base, she changed professions and opened Picante Mexican Taqueria, now in downtown Kennewick.
The restaurant at 20 S. Auburn St. has been home to many businesses over the years. Old-timers remember it as Oh Henry’s A Go Go. But it’s also been a Mexican restaurant, as well as a pizza place.
Vargas’ Picante has been open since March 2023. It’s safe to say the business is successful, with plenty of customers coming in each day to eat tacos, burritos and brunch items made available daily.
But to get where she is now, Vargas had to make a few turns.
It all started in 2019 when a food truck opportunity came up. Vargas, happy as a therapist, hadn’t really planned on changing her profession.
“A friend of mine reached out and wanted to know if I wanted to try out a food truck,” Vargas said. “I thought to myself, ‘This was a good opportunity to create something to bring my mom (Mercedes Garcia) into the mix.’”
It took a while to get the truck up and going, but Vargas opened her food truck in January 2020.
“It was a lot of challenges and hurdles in the beginning, not knowing the industry,” she said. “Not knowing the paperwork and applications. That was the biggest challenge.”
But she thought they had something.
“I love starting projects, putting together things. We had done a pop-up the previous October,” Vargas said. “One thing (my mom and I) wanted to do was make sure the name was simple both in spelling and pronunciation.”
Thus, Picante was born. It’s pronounced the same in English and Spanish, and the word means hot and spicy.
They opened their food truck on Columbia Drive, and then the pandemic arrived and upended everything.
Picante was forced to close, but it only lasted a week, as the state declared food trucks with ventilation systems were good for to-go orders.
“We dodged a bullet there,” Vargas said. “But we still had a slow start.”
Business really did start to pick up, though. Within three months of opening, Picante was named one of the Tri-Cities’ top food trucks in a local poll.
For 2 ½ years, Picante flourished as a food truck in Kennewick.
Vargas considered a second food truck, or catering.
“But then your regular customers are upset if you’re closed because you’re doing a catering job,” she said.
There was another option: find a brick and mortar building.
“The beauty of a food truck is the low overhead,” Vargas said. “But when it’s 100 degrees outside in the summer, it’s 120 degrees inside the truck. We’d have to find a place to park in the shade. And in the winter, you have to put antifreeze in the lines and hope nothing freezes up.”
Plus, there was much more competition on Columbia Drive.
“There had been so much growth in food trucks on Columbia Drive,” Vargas said. “We were the third truck on Columbia Drive when we opened up. There were many more food trucks available on Columbia Drive when we left.”
One day she went into the Auburn Street location when it was a Mexican restaurant, and she fell in love with the building.
“I loved how small this brick and mortar was. I had my eye on this building for a while,” she said.
When Fourth Base Pizza & Wingz closed in 2022, Vargas jumped at the chance of getting in.
She closed the food truck in August 2022, and remodeled the Auburn Street building inside and fixed the ancient plumbing.
She opened the restaurant and got rid of the food truck.
In the spring, summer and fall, customers can enjoy an outdoor patio with enough seats and tables to more than double the capacity. A stage for bands sits ready for a fun night of music — which Vargas has hosted a few times last year.
Picante also holds periodic car shows that bring in a large groups.
Vargas says most of Picante’s recipes come from where her family is from in Mexico, the city of Manzanillo in the state of Colima.
Her mother “has been the main person when it comes to the recipes.”
Vargas knows the recipes, too.
“I have been more about putting a modern twist to it all. I use social media (mostly Instagram and some Facebook), and a lot of people eat up the pictures,” she said.
A number of employees know how to cook the recipes, and Garcia is now more about quality control so the menu stays consistent.
It’s been time well spent.
“I learned a lot about my mom,” Vargas said. “As you get older, and you start establishing a career, there’s a separation that happens with your parents. This allowed me to be closer to my mom.”
Together, as well with their employees, they’ve got a hit on their hands.
Start with the tacos, all made with handmade tortillas.
The Cheesy Birria tacos are the most popular, Vargas said, while the Asada is No. 2.
“The second best thing on the menu are the burritos,” Vargas said. “Each burrito has its own style.”
Other items she touts are the Birria Ramen soup and enchiladas with the family recipe mole.
“And the ceviche is starting to take off,” Vargas said. “But the menu is still on trial. There are many things we plan on bringing out.”
What’s been the public’s response?
“Our customer numbers have quadrupled in comparison to the food truck,” Vargas said. “… People want that sit-down experience,” she said.
Vargas loves her customers. But she holds a special place in her heart for her employees.
“The employee numbers have grown,” she said. “When we had the food truck, we had three to four employees. Now we have 20 employees and will probably move to 28 in the summertime when the patio is open.”
Her team has three goals: teamwork, customer service and quality.
“I love the people. That means the customers. But it also means my employees,” Vargas said. “People who help me open this place every day, and we provide them a new opportunity. And people supporting our business are in return supporting our employees individually.”
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Wednesday; 10 a.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday; closed on Sundays. Plans call for opening on Sundays starting April 24.
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