Celenne Nungaray was just seven years old when she started helping at her family’s produce stand in a rural area just outside Guadalajara. A true appreciation for fresh food had always been an important theme in the Nungaray family of seven.
“In Mexico, our family had always been in the food business,” said Celenne. “Our dream was to someday move to the United States and open a restaurant.”
Five years ago, the family took a leap of faith and moved to Auburn, leaving two grown, married children behind. Celenne — then 19 and in culture shock — immediately joined her parents Francisca and Ferman in taking odd jobs in order to save money. The two younger siblings, Yeraldin and Hugo, were enrolled in their new American school.
“It was hard, but we knew we were working toward a goal,” said Celenne. “We worked as much as we could.”
In the spring of 2011 a friend mentioned to Celenne that he’d heard of a South County restaurant that had been sitting empty for the past two years. She rushed out to see what had once been the home of Tortilla Grill, adjacent to the Chevron gas station at the intersection of Combie Road and Highway 49.
“It was perfect,” she said, with a smile. “We wanted to start small.”
With the help of a business loan, the Nungaray family opened the doors of El Agave Taqueria in June of 2011.
“It was amazing — we didn’t even advertise and people just started coming through the doors,” said Celenne. “The people of Lake of the Pines spread the word that our food was good. Suddenly everyone in the area knew and we could tell they wanted us to succeed.”
With the exception of hiring two cooks, that first year the family worked more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Fortunately, Celenne had taken business classes in college while still in Mexico, and her expertise turned out to be a true asset while launching the family business.
“We worked all day and all night,” said Celenne, now 25. “But that’s how it is if you really want to make it.”
Today, the Nungaray family has opened a larger, second El Agave Taqueria, located farther down Highway 49 near Live Oak Lane in Auburn, closer to the intersection of I-80. In addition to the family, they now have 15 employees between the two locations.
“The new restaurant is much bigger,” said Celenne. “We’re still working hard as a family, but it’s been like a dream — I’m so happy we finally made it. I love seeing our customers so happy with our food.”
Local favorite dishes, aka “Especialidad de la Casa,” include carne asada, which is thin grilled fillet steak seasoned with spices from Guadalajara, accompanied by grilled green onions and a homemade tomatillo sauce, and carnitas — tender pieces of pork cooked slowly “Michoacán Mexico style.”
An authentic dish from Guadalajara — a family favorite — is Al Pastor, which boasts tender marinated pork with a smoky flavor of dried chiles and sweet roasted pineapple on the side.
For the typical American palate, chimichangas, vegetarian burritos and fish tacos are popular, not to mention nachos — a dish virtually unheard of in Guadalajara.
A sampling of the breakfast menu includes huevos rancheros, huevos con chorizo and the enormous Breakfast Agave Burrito, which has whole beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tomatillo sauce and a choice of bacon, chorizo or ham.
Made fresh daily from scratch, all meals are served using high grade poultry and meats, as well as ingredients without additives or saturated fats, said Celenne.
Lake of the Pines resident Bill Reig stopped in Friday to order “the usual.”
“I love the steak tacos,” said Reig, who drives a propane delivery truck. “The food is the best, and they are a very nice family.”
When it comes to her customers, Celenne said she is humbled with gratitude, because they have helped her family reach a decades-long goal.
As for the future — all Celenne can do is smile.
“What is my dream?” she asked herself, looking at her surroundings. “I don’t know, I mean, it was this.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.
“We worked all day and all night. But that’s how it is if you really want to make it.”\n