A young entrepreneur finds inspiration for his new restaurant behind the stone walls of an ancient city
Alfredo Lara worked his first job at the age of 8, selling bright balloons to passersby from a flea market booth in Raleigh. Sixteen years later, at just 24 years old, Lara is the owner of Tulum Restaurante and Bar, a Mayan-inflected Mexican restaurant on Fayetteville Street downtown.
The restaurant is named after the ancient, fortified Mayan city on the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula—a city bordered by jungle and the Caribbean sea. In the Mayan tongue, “tulum” means wall or barrier. But for Lara, his restaurant is the opposite—it’s a bridge, a way of embracing the downtown community through food, drink and hospitality.
“Tulum is meant to be a fun place,” Lara says. “The energy that you feel in the building, the music, the service, the drinks…It’s a fun vibe, a place full of experiences where we try to be as personal as we can with the customer.”
The menu is full of items one would expect to find in a Mexican restaurant, like fajitas, empanadas, burritos, chimichangas and quesadillas, and traditional flavors like garlic, cilantro, lime and jalapeno. But a portion of the menu is devoted to Mayan dishes like Poc Chuc, pork in citrus marinade; Tikin-Xik, fish filet served with Mayan barbecue sauce; Papadzules, an enchilada-like dish with egg; and a Mayan version of tamales. There are some other surprises, like a Cuban sandwich, or torta, with chorizo and shredded pork, and a chicken dish topped with a ginger mole sauce.
The dishes are created by kitchen staff from the Yucatán Peninsula, and Lara believes this authenticity helps to set his restaurant apart.
“We just try to be better,” he says. “We use a lot of higher quality ingredients, and we have some recipes no one else has. In this industry, it’s so hard to be different, but I want this to be the best Mexican restaurant around.”
Lara is an optimist, a trait that has carried him through the yearlong process of opening the restaurant. The space, located in the belly of an old bank in the Duke Energy Building, was formerly occupied by a Caribbean eatery, Twisted Mango, and before that, Italian bistro La Volta. It took Lara far longer to open than he planned; he ran into permitting issues, had contractor troubles and dealt with last minute setbacks.
Then, a week before the grand opening, Nick Bobbie, his bar manager—and best friend since high school—passed away.
“He was the person that was by my side through this, supporting every idea I had,” Lara says.
The pair worked together at Jersey Mike’s, where Lara was employed through high school. He didn’t have a lot of friends back then; he was shy and quiet, the result of having been uprooted from his home in Mexico and moving to a country he found less than welcoming. When Lara was in the third grade, his mother, Ruth, and stepfather, Tom, moved the family to the United States from Guadalajara.
“When I came here, I was just shocked by all the negative things around me—number one being racism,” Lara says. “You have no idea how many times I was told to go back to my country. I never understood that. It made me feel unwanted, and when you feel unwanted, you don’t want to talk. You see everyone with friends, having fun, and that only depresses you more. It was really hard for me.”
After high school graduation, Lara returned to Mexico to study industrial engineering at Anáhuac Cancún University. He enjoyed life in nearby Playa del Carmen, exploring sandy beaches, ancient ruins and the deep caves of jungle cenotes, but quickly realized that school and his field of study were not a good fit. He moved back to Raleigh and took a job waiting tables at La Rancherita, where his confidence—and affinity for hospitality—blossomed.
“I was going to work as happy as ever and it was such a cool experience,” he says. “You learn that it’s about speaking with people, communicating, being personable.”
Lara learned the ins and outs of running a business when he became an owner and manager at Mi Cancun, which has locations in North Raleigh and Morrisville. He still marvels at the fact that investors had faith in someone as young as he was, and laughs that he applied for a liquor license when he was still underage. To prove he was serious, he worked the first year without taking a single day off, running the front of the house as well as doing marketing, the website and social media. He has since divested his ownership in the company to focus on Tulum.
“I can’t really separate the business and personal life, because my personal life is the business,” Lara says. “This is what I do—I live here. My mind is always here, even if I’m not. People know how passionate I am being here, and I care so much for the customers—it means the world to me. They keep me going, them and my family.”