It wasn't long ago that Hector Ruiz's empire seemed unstoppable.

On the scene for nearly two decades, the chef and restaurateur had opened his fifth Minneapolis restaurant, Don Raúl. The Star Tribune named him Titan of the Year in 2019.

Then came 2020 and the crippling of the hospitality industry. One by one, the doors of Ruiz's restaurants closed.

Today, his portfolio of corner cafes and neighborhood treasures that celebrate Latin cuisine looks nothing like it did a year ago.

Don Raúl and Costa Blanca Bistro are no more. Ruiz's flagship south Minneapolis restaurant, Cafe Ena, has gone dark, its future uncertain. His restaurant La Fresca closed and reopened as the more casual El Asador. Only the tapas spot Rincón 38 remains as it once was.

But with the concept that has risen in Don Raúl's place, the counter-service taqueria El Travieso, it seems Ruiz may have stumbled upon a new direction for his businesses.

"It was my most fine dining restaurant, and I just changed it to comfort food," Ruiz said. "Everything goes in disposable bags, boxes. And people are loving it."

This pandemic-friendly approach to dining is going so well that Ruiz is taking it to the suburbs. He's opening a second location of El Travieso in Minnetonka this spring — his first restaurant outside city limits.

"I've always considered myself a Minneapolis boy," he said, and he has the bona fides to prove it. He moved to the United States in 1992 to cook at the new Mall of America. He did his rounds with the chains — Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood — before climbing the ranks of upscale restaurants in and around Minneapolis. His star rose when he took over the Lyndale Avenue Caribbean restaurant El Meson in 2003, and ran it for nine years.

"This is home for me," he said. "But now, with everything, I went to Minnetonka and said, 'Hey, I'll give it a shot.' "

Welcomed with open arms

He's already been wooed by the warm welcome he has received out west, a part of the metro that is only beginning to be noticed by independent restaurateurs looking to expand outward from the cities. Fried chicken hot spot Revival, for example, is adding a new outpost soon in St. Louis Park; it will share patio space with Angel Food Bakery, which recently announced its downtown departure.

"I applied for my permits with the city of Minnetonka, and they're like, 'We're so happy you're here,' " Ruiz said. He chalks it up to a hunger for fresh, scratch cooking.

Like the Minneapolis El Travieso, the menu will feature rustic corn tortillas that nod to a technique used in Ruiz's home state of Morelos. Another specialty is the "Arabian" style of taco that hails from the neighboring state of Puebla and utilizes flour tortillas. Meat choices include carne asada, pastor, adobo chicken, slow-roasted beef barbacoa, cochinita pibil, baby back ribs and striped bass. Burrito bowls, tostadas and quesadillas round out the menu.

"There's really nothing out there like it," said adviser Chase Lindsay, who partnered with Ruiz on El Travieso. "It's just the authenticity of it. I think that's something the suburbs are missing out on."

The spacious spot in the Minnehaven Square building at 17623 Minnetonka Blvd. — it used to be a Nautical Bowls — gives Ruiz room to grow. He has been using Cafe Ena's kitchen as a commissary for El Travieso and El Asador. The new place will take on that role while Ruiz decides Cafe Ena's fate.

"It's a lot of things up in the air," he said, such as how patio-friendly Minneapolis will be as the weather warms, whether he can afford the minimum wage increases on the horizon, if he can withstand repeated break-ins at his properties, and when he wants to ultimately retire from the business.

"If I'm getting more busy with my taquerias, maybe I don't open Ena, I don't know. Maybe I wait till the summer," Ruiz said. "At this time, I don't know what is the future, or how it's going to be."

It's a family affair

It's an emotional position to be in. "Ena is the backbone of my operation," he said. "Ena makes me who I am, and every single aspect of the other restaurants. Ena was my flagship. El Meson, it was the dad and then Ena was the mom. And then Ena gives birth to Rincón, La Fresca, Costa Blanca, Don Raúl."

He extends the metaphor to the latest stage in his career, calling his new counter-service spots "the grandchildren" that are urging the elders to get hip to the times. It's an adjustment. Switching to paper products, for one thing. And, of course, the food.

"My mom makes a joke. She's like, 'OK, Mr. Classical French Cuisine Chef. Why you cooking tacos?' "

On the question of retirement, Ruiz, 47, had been planning to work another two years in the business before hanging up his chef's hat. But with the promise of counter service in the suburbs, he's reconsidering. And now that his children have joined the operation, he's leaving some of those bigger decisions to them.

"They're 24, 21, and my baby, she's 16, but they know the business like the back of their hand," he said. "They grew up in the business."

A son who died in 2018 is also part of the business in spirit. El Travieso, which means "little troublemaker," was his nickname.

"He challenged me, and he hated restaurants, because I was never home. I knew that I was gonna lose something, but I didn't ever know that I was gonna lose one of my sons. I chose my career. That's the price, and it's part of life. But now I've got to do what I do carefully. And now my kids are a part of what I do."

Bringing them into the fold at a time when Ruiz's industry is rupturing teaches them about more than running restaurants, he said. It's giving them insight into his life, long before he became a "Minneapolis boy."

"I say, 'This is like Mexico right now,' " Ruiz said. "It's surviving every day. You don't know what's going to happen."

Hector Ruiz's restaurant résumé

From Planet Hollywood to El Meson, Hector Ruiz has a long history as a Twin Cities chef. His current restaurants:

Cafe Ena: 4601 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-824-4441, Temporarily closed.

El Asador: 4750 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-825-2060, Open Tuesdays through Sundays for dine-in and takeout.

El Travieso: 4953 Xerxes Av. S., Mpls., 612-922-9235; 17623 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka, opening this spring; Open daily for dine-in and takeout.

Rincón 38: 3801 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-824-4052, Open Tuesday through Sundays for dine-in and takeout.