The dark side of the South’s Mexican combo-plate dream

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Gregorio Leon drove to the outskirts of Lexington, S.C., the night of Feb. 14, 2016, with a gun by his side and rage in his heart.

Hours earlier, the 49-year-old had enjoyed a couple’s dinner with friends, his children and his wife of 26 years, Rachel. The two were taking time off from running Gregorio’s eight Mexican restaurants, where combo plates ruled and the decor looked like an El Torito circa 1992.

It didn’t matter: His San Jose Mexican chain was a local smash. Tall and stocky with intense brown eyes, Gregorio was, as a South Carolina Spanish-language newspaper described him, “un orgullo Hispano” — a Hispanic to be proud of.

Banners with San Jose’s logo — an illustration of a mustachioed Mexican peasant boy in sombrero and serape, pulling on a stubborn burro — hung on the fences of baseball and soccer fields across Lexington, a well-kept suburb. Gregorio was the type of guy who paid the medical bills of a worker struck with brain cancer, who hosted epic barbecue tailgates at University of South Carolina football games and donated thousands of dollars to his home village in Mexico.

But legal problems always seemed to swirl around him. Most recently, he had just finished probation for his role in a bribery scheme that sent a Lexington County sheriff to prison, and he was now under a separate probation for hiring undocumented workers.

Now Gregorio was about to violate that probation in a dramatic, bloody way.

Rachel had slipped away from her family after their meal. Three days earlier, she had bought a man a $40,000 truck and told the car dealer “she was preparing to move in with” her paramour, according to a statement the dealer gave to Lexington police.

Gregorio drove for about 10 minutes to a secluded parking lot. There, Rachel’s Mercedes — which he had bugged with a tracking device that detectives found afterward, according to a police report — stood empty.

He touched its hood, approached a nearby silver Toyota Tundra and opened its passenger door. Inside, 28-year-old Arturo Bravo, wearing only socks, was with Rachel.

Gregorio fired four shots into the Tundra’s cab. Two missed; two didn’t, according to police investigative notes.

The restaurateur called 911 and identified himself as “Greg.”

“I shot my wife’s lover,” he told the dispatcher, according to a sworn police affidavit. Bravo lay dying on the asphalt; Rachel remained in the Tundra. Gregorio left her at the scene. He tossed the gun in the woods near one of his San Joses before turning himself in to Lexington police three hours later.

The regional solicitor (South Carolina’s version of a district attorney) charged Gregorio with four felonies: murder, attempted murder, discharging a weapon into a vehicle and possession of a firearm during a violent crime.

Graphic novel illustrations of a handgun

(Felipe Flores / For The Times )

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. A December memorandum filed in court by his attorney, Dick Harpootlian, claims the “so-called victim,” Bravo, had ties to the Zetas drug cartel and repeatedly and secretly had forced sex with Rachel for nearly two years.

The presiding judge has placed a gag order over the parties in the case, so Gregorio was unavailable for comment, according to Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator. But the scandal has sent tongues wagging across South Carolina, and not just because of the tawdry details of the case.

Gregorio was almost royalty in the dynasty of transplants from San Jose de la Paz, Jalisco, a village of about 1,000 in the Mexican tequila-growing region that dominates the South’s Mexican restaurant scene. In the last 45 years, its residents have established a network of restaurants across the region that now number more than 700. Families lord over fiefdoms that span big cities and small towns, with gentlemen’s agreements keeping competitors away and marriages entered into as much to solidify and expand holdings as for love.

It’s like “Game of Thrones,” except with more cheese sauce.

Gregorio had to give up his passport, but his siblings and children continue to return to their ancestral hometown and live it up. Like hundreds of their fellow Southern paisanos, they go back to Mexico often to enjoy a pueblo transformed by their entrepreneurial accomplishments.

Politicians and the press have praised the San Jose de la Paz migrants as a model of integration and success in a new, diverse South. Now Gregorio has become the most prominent example of the dark side of their Mexican combo-plate dream.

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Five days after Bravo’s killing, Gregorio sat in a Lexington County courtroom. Rachel, their six children, Gregorio’s father and nine siblings, and other family members were among the 75 or so people who showed up in support of the accused murderer. Only seven people appeared for his victim.

Through an interpreter, Rachel asked presiding Judge Knox McMahon to allow Gregorio out on bond so he could run his business. Attorney Eric Bland argued that nearly 120 people in the Lexington area relied on his client for their livelihood, while families in Mexico depended on his charity.

“The arms and the tentacles that spring from this San Jose restaurant are extraordinary,” Bland said.

Judge McMahon deliberated for some minutes before granting the request, setting bail at $500,000. A teary Gregorio waved to onlookers as bailiffs led him away in handcuffs. Soon after, he served six months in federal prison for violating probation and has been under house arrest ever since.

Gregorio’s trial was scheduled for this month but has been delayed because of the coronavirus. He is allowed out only to work and to attend marriage counseling under the watch of a priest and security. Rachel, for her part, said in a sworn affidavit, “Notwithstanding the charges, I still love him.”

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The relationship between San Jose de la Paz and el Sur began in 1973 in downtown Atlanta, where friends Raul Leon and Jose Macias — both distant relatives of Gregorio — opened a Mexican restaurant.

The partnership lasted only a year, and each subsequently opened his own spot — El Toro for Macias, Monterrey Mexican Restaurant for Leon — in the Atlanta suburbs of Doraville and Chamblee. The rivals brought over relatives and friends to staff them. Soon those employees opened so many places around Atlanta that new arrivals from San Jose de la Paz sought out parts of the South where Mexican food was still a novelty.

Owning your own eatery in el Norte became such a part of San Jose’s identity that residents nicknamed themselves “restauranteros.” Nearly everyone stuck to the El Toro-Monterrey model: menus with the same misspellings and same number for combo platters. The same photo or painting of San Jose’s main plaza and church hung somewhere as a reminder of home. Large spaces, the better to pack in white families looking for a night out. Even the same specials, with gringo-pandering names like the Speedy Gonzales (taco, enchilada, rice or beans) and Yolandas (three enchiladas slathered in sour cream).

Food critics and Mexican eaters gagged at the paint-by-numbers approach to Mexican food. But it made millionaires out of many San Jose de la Paz migrants, and their chains are now staples of the Southern landscape and beyond. El Nopal has 27 locations in Kentucky and Indiana. Plaza Azteca, started in Virginia Beach in 1994, now has 46 locations from North Carolina to Connecticut. In Nashville, there are nine Las Palmas restaurants.

They’re “not at all exotic” anymore, said Hanna Raskin, food critic for the Post and Courier in Charleston. She first covered the South’s San Jose de la Paz phenomenon in Asheville, N.C., 10 years ago. “Many of these combo-plate restaurants have now been in place for decades, so customers know the owners as fellow soccer team parents.”

In the Midlands region of South Carolina, Gregorio Leon was the soccer dad-restaurantero everybody knew.

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As a child, Gregorio and his family migrated to Atlanta to join his father, who opened the first San Jose Mexican Restaurant in 1981. The Atlanta Constitution reported the following year, “If it keeps going this well maybe [Gregorio Sr. will] turn it into a chain.”

Instead of Georgia, the Leon clan set up their kingdom in 1989 in Columbia, S.C. Times were initially hard.

“People were used to country cooking,” Gregorio Jr. told a South Carolina lifestyle magazine in 2015. “They were not willing even to experiment and taste [our dishes]. We’d ask, ‘Do you like Mexican food?’ They’d say, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ So we would say, ‘Have you ever had it?’ And they’d say, ‘No, but I don’t like it.’”

Today the family runs 14 San Joses and is such a part of the state that it regularly sets up a booth at the South Carolina State Fair. Gregorio also opened two bars named after his son, Pancho.

His hard work won entry into the Palmetto State good life. Gregorio owned multiple properties, including a 30-acre farm where he raised Andalusian and Friesian horses. During football season, “Greg” was a regular at University of South Carolina games. Sometimes he tailgated; sometimes he worked sideline security. Some years, Gregorio perched one of his roosters (all named after the team’s mascot, Cocky) on a railing at the end zone to honor his beloved Gamecocks.

Graphic novel illustrations of a combo plate

(Felipe Flores / For The Times )

Gregorio became so thoroughly assimilated to South Carolina society that he regularly donated to Republican political candidates and steered clear of progressive politics. On May 1, 2006, while millions of Latinos staged a nationwide boycott to protest for amnesty for undocumented immigrants, Gregorio told the Associated Press: “I don’t think everybody closing down for one day solves anything.”

As the years went on, though, his notoriety around town was increasingly associated with running afoul of the law. In 2002, he was caught up in a cockfighting scandal that brought down South Carolina’s then-agricultural commissioner. In 2012, Gregorio, his father and two of his brothers collectively paid more than over half a million dollars in back wages. Two years later, a state grand jury indicted him for paying off Lexington County Sheriff James Metts to release some of San Jose’s undocumented workers arrested by his deputies.

Gregorio collaborated with prosecutors to nab Metts; for his service, he received a punishment of 200 hours of community service and five years of probation.

He wept during his October 2015 sentencing. “If I had known all this would have happened, I never would have done it,” Gregorio told the judge.

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No one in Lexington contacted for this story agreed to talk on the record; all were afraid of crossing Gregorio for one reason or another.

But the mystique of the San Jose de la Paz narrative is beginning to fray.

Among other Mexican restaurant owners in the South, retauranteros have a reputation as “showoffs,” said Charlie Ibarra, owner of Southern-Mexican hybrid The Cortez in Raleigh. His family, originally from a village about 45 minutes south of San Jose de la Paz, established its own mini-empire in the Raleigh-Durham area during the aughts, eclipsing their Jalisciense rivals.

“They had the work ethic to make it big,” Ibarra said. “But they use that restaurantero money to go back to Mexico for over-the-top parties, flaunt their cars and their houses, and constantly try and one-up each other.”

In recent years, that quien-es-más-macho spirit has included worker exploitation.

U.S. Department of Labor records show that Mexican restaurants with ties to San Jose de la Paz — including some operated by Gregorio and his family — have paid out over $10 million in back wages and fines over the last decade. Among the charges: overtime violations and forcing employees to work just for tips and sometimes nothing at all.

In one ruling, a judge rejected a restaurantero’s argument that a former employee who was suing for back wages had no legal standing to pursue a class-action suit because she was an undocumented immigrant. In another, a Georgia appelate judge criticized the San Jose system as one reliant on “a person who gives instructions and tells people what to do, a boss to be followed without question.”

Gilda A. Hernandez is a labor lawyer in Cary, N.C., who won a settlement against one San Jose de la Paz restaurant group (not affiliated with Gregorio’s chain) and is pursuing class-action lawsuits against two others. The daughter of Mexican immigrants wasn’t familiar with Leon’s case but sees it as a sad metaphor for what has become of the restauranteros.

“While it is one thing to see people pursue the American dream by coming from nothing and doing something amazing, it’s quite another when that success is not achieved within the parameters of the law,” Hernandez said. “I’m not sure why they think it’s OK to grow exponentially off the backs of workers. It simply cheapens their success story.”

Despite his impending trial, Gregorio Leon seems at ease. He hasn’t violated his bail, and social media posts in the years since he killed Bravo show him smiling at birthday parties and high school graduations with his children. In a video posted to Facebook just four months ago, Gregorio cooks camarones al mojo de ajo from a flattop stove at one of his San Joses, adding the caption in Spanish, “With feeling, my friends … arre [hell ya].”

It’s a contrast to the man described by Bravo’s friend the day after his death, who told a Lexington police investigator that she had been “afraid for Arturo because Mr. Leon is very well known around the Hispanic community for what he does and is involved in.”

She didn’t elaborate.



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