Nevada reinvented: Milpa restaurant owner goes from feeling torn to growing like corn

Many Nevadans have had to reinvent themselves to weather the pandemic, changing their career paths in a time of uncertainty. The Nevada Independent sharing stories of people trying something new.

If you are a business owner or worker in Nevada whose job has been disrupted by coronavirus, we would like to present your story. Send an email to [email protected] for exam.

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Chef DJ Flores went through the worst of the pandemic at a restaurant on the Strip until one day he fell ill and was eventually fired.

But the hardships of 2020 have become his driving force for something new – his own restaurant in 2021.

Flores had been a chef at a restaurant on the Strip since it opened in 2017. In October, he fell ill with COVID-19 and was out for three weeks. After he returned to work, a new management (who arrived during his absence) fired him.

“As minorities, as Latinos, we’re always in the back kitchen, always just with a hard work ethic and we want to do our best,” Flores said. “But no one is shedding light on Latinos, and it’s a shame I couldn’t be good at this business.”

He decided to apply this work ethic to create his own restaurant, Milpa. He was supported by friends, family and other chefs, inspired by the quality ingredients of Mexico City restaurants and powered by having something of his own where he can be creative and be his own boss.

“I have to get through it. When I was sick there was a time when I thought I was going to die, and I lost two friends last year – one in a car accident and another who died in his sleep – so I Said ‘hey, you have one time to do something,’ “said the Las Vegas native.” It’s now or back to the Strip. I don’t wanna be back to the Strip. It’s my mission is my motivation every day, I know I have to make it work because I don’t want to go back to the Strip.

Milpa, a casual Mexican restaurant in southwest Las Vegas, located at 4226 Durango Drive, Suite 101, opened in January. It takes its name from a traditional Mayan cropping system in which corn, squash, and beans are interspersed and support each other to grow.

Similar to how cultures help each other in milpas, Flores was able to make the restaurant possible through moral support and financial help from friends and family. In return, he wants to help raise other Latino chefs and give back to the community.

DJ Flores, owner and chef of Milpa, a Mexican restaurant, grinds corn for masa on Thursday, March 4, 2021 (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

Every day at 7 a.m., the 36-year-old charges were cooking yellow or blue corn from Oaxaca, Mexico, with a little water in an electric molino, a corn mill. After about a minute, the masa falls into a silver platter and is sprinkled with salt to then be rolled into balls and pressed flat to become tortillas.

Its method of making tortillas does not include Maseca, a processed flour, which sets Milpa apart from other Mexican cuisine restaurants. Flores learned the value of whole, quality ingredients during an internship in Mexico City at a renowned restaurant called Quintonil in 2016. Flores says he holds his bowls, salads and tacos to this standard.

Most of Milpa’s dishes are vegetable and grain based with the option of adding grilled chicken adobo, short ribs, or cilantro and lime shrimp. Flores said he doesn’t serve Mexican food per se, but created his recipes to showcase the flavors of traditional Mexican ingredients.

The breakfast and lunch venue will soon be adding coffee to its menu, thanks to a newly acquired espresso machine, and has also recently applied for a beer and wine license to please the diner crowd.

DJ Flores, owner and chef of Milpa, a Mexican restaurant, on Thursday, March 4, 2021 (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

Flores has so far invested around $ 60,000 in Milpa. The small business is not eligible for any loans or government financial assistance related to the pandemic, including the Emergency technical assistance in the event of a pandemic (PETS) or the Paycheque Protection Program (PPP) – because it was not open before the pandemic. Flores said he was also denied personal bank loans.

Milpa probably won’t be profitable for about six months, he said, especially with capacity limits and people’s fears about going out. It is currently dependent on the delivery of mobile application orders.

“You can’t put yourself down and can’t just think of the negatives, you have to think of the positives,” Flores said. “Fortunately, we are getting busier and busier because people have noticed us and the quality of our products. “

To build awareness through word of mouth and social media, Flores hosts a Taco Industry Night every Tuesday where a guest chef serves up a favorite taco recipe, cross-promoting each of the restaurants.

Next year, Flores hopes to add another Milpa location. He said his work ethic came from his parents, who are originally from Puebla, Mexico, and have their own businesses.

“Maybe it was in my DNA to be an entrepreneur and to open something myself,” he said. “It was always in my head, so maybe this event just started the fire.”

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