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Taste the old country at Chino's

MOLINE -- The heady smell of baking sweet bread assails the senses at Chino's Mexican Restaurant and Bakery in Moline.

It's easy to picture breads in the oven, swelling into soft, brown loaves, waiting to be dressed in bright-colored sugar, almost too artistic to eat. Almost.

The tastes are just as artistic. The soft, sweet concha (bread decorated to look like a conch shell) and creamy custard quesadilla are just two of the artistic baking creations the Gonzalez family has been making for generations.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

Teresa Gonzales and her father, Jesus `Chino' Gonzales, show some of the pastries Mr. Gonzales makes at Chino's Mexican Restaurant and Bakery, Moline.

For 2 1/2 years, the family, which owns the little shop at 601 15th St. in Moline, has been introducing Midwestern taste buds to treats and sweets from south of the border.

It's a family business born from a family tradition almost lost by the passage of years and the separation of miles.

Now, it's all kept running smoothly by a five-foot ball of energy named Teresita Gonzalez. The 24-year old third-born of the Gonzalez clan manages the bakery and restaurant, orders supplies, buys equipment and keeps the books.

The Gonzalez's story isn't unique, but it's unusual in the 1990s -- when corporate-slick is everything and one-of-a-kind is hard to find.

``My grandfather was a baker,'' Miss Gonzalez said, seated at one of the glass-topped, green-clad tables-for-two in the homey restaurant dining room.

``He taught my father the trade when he was 10 or 11 years old,'' she said, explaining that as a boy, her curly-haired father, Jesus, was nicknamed Chino, which means curl.

``When my father was 13, his father died. Later, when my father moved to the United States, he got away from baking,'' Miss Gonzalez said.

Mr. Gonzalez and his wife, Audelia, raised Miss Gonzalez and her five brothers and sisters in the Quad Cities. He worked as a welder, while his wife worked at the former Servus Rubber. Three years ago, Miss Gonzales said, her father decided to open a Mexican bakery.

With help from Renew Moline, a private development group, and his wife and children, all college-educated or college-bound, Jesus Gonzalez opened Chino's Mexican Bakery in May of 1995, in the former Grey Gables restaurant.

The building needed a lot of repairs because the building had been empty for years and had water damage from a long-ago fire, Miss Gonzalez said.

She bought equipment and furnishings, searching for bargains at other restaurants' going-out-of-business sales and auctions.

It was a family effort. Miss Gonzalez' older sister, Maria, who has a business degree, helped with paperwork and applications. Miss Gonzalez, who has a finance degree, took time from her banking job to help with the books and taxes. Brother Fabian, a commercial artist, redesigned the building's interior and painted and hand-stenciled the walls.

They preserved a huge framed picture of the building's exterior taken about 1940, which remains the centerpiece of the dining room.

Renew Moline, which owned the building, agreed to give it to the family if the business was successful after two years. It was, and the Gonzalez family burned the mortgage last summer.

Not only was the bakery a success, but it started growing just three months after it opened.

``I started putting in a few extra hours,'' Miss Gonzalez said, ``and when customers started asking `Why don't you serve food,' I thought about it long and hard, then talked my parents into (opening the restaurant).''

``I didn't know what I had gotten myself into,'' the energetic woman who inherited her father's curly hair, said. ``I thought, `I have a career, I'm a banker. I could've gone to Chicago,' but I got involved (in the restaurant) more and more.''

Miss Gonzalez seems to have found her niche, right at home. She said she doesn't mind not using her other two degrees, in French (including study in Paris) and Spanish, that much.

``You'll see us waitressing, and doing other jobs, too,'' she said. Her younger sister, Rosalva, a teacher, waits tables at nights and on weekends. Her sister-in-law helps out too.

Customers also might see a Gonzalez grandchild or two popping in and out of the kitchen. It all adds to the family feel at Chino's.

Guitar music plays softly in the background. Then, there are the smells that begin wafting from the kitchen shortly after Jesus ``Chino'' Gonzales starts baking at 2 a.m. each day.

He churns out tray after tray of brightly colored conchas, empanadas (pumpkin and banana turnovers), nuve (butter-flavored loaves), poluorones (multi-colored sugar cookies), bollilos (torpedo-shaped white breads), and more.

Audelia Gonzazlez takes over as chief cook for lunch and dinner.

Pambazos are the restaurant's specialty. Shredded meat is stacked on bollilo loaves, and dipped in a red chile oil, which coats the crust and makes it crunchy and shiny-red, but not too spicy.

Ms. Gonzales said her parents cooking is a lot different from the spicier cooking in northern or southern Mexico. The dishes from the family's home province of Guanajuanto in south-central Mexico are unique.

``It's not as spicy,'' she said. ``The dishes have more of a sweet taste, a blended taste that's not very hot. You can taste the food, and it's not going to burn your mouth.''

Chino's plans to open an expanded bakery and Mexican grocery in the building in March. It will be managed by son Jesus.

The expansion was another of Miss Gonzalez' idea. ``My mom tells me, `Haven't you had enough?'|'' she said, admitting the expansion will add time to her already 13-hour days. ``I'm thankful my parents, brothers and sisters are keeping up with me.

``I admire my parents a lot for this. I've learned to value what we have here. My parents invested a lot. They invested all their savings. They're approaching retirement age, and they've worked hard for us all their lives. We want to help them now.''

``It's work that needs to be done, and we do it.''

That's a work ethic the taste buds of Quad-Citians can appreciate.

-- By Marcy Norton (January 22, 1998)

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