Having grown up in one of Minnesota’s landmark Mexican eateries, Gloria Frias was ready to leave the restaurant business behind. But her husband’s dream — and her devotion to him — led her back to the stews, sauces and sopes of Mexico.
In 1964, she and her husband, Guillermo Frias, founded Boca Chica, a St. Paul cantina that still dishes out the couple’s recipes. Gloria Frias died Dec. 12 at age 84.
Born in 1931 in St. Paul, Gloria is one link in a culinary dynasty. Her parents, Arturo and Elvira Coronado, ran La Casa Coronado, first in St. Paul, then in Minneapolis. Her grandfather also had a restaurant, in Houston, where Gloria worked. It was in Texas where she met the man she would marry. In 1952, the couple wed and moved back to St. Paul, where Gloria worked for the state; Guillermo was a tailor.
Both dreamed of owning their own business. Guillermo wanted it to be a restaurant, and Gloria agreed.
“My mom was very loyal to my dad, and without her I don’t know the restaurant would have gone as long as it had, much less started,” said daughter Cristela Koski. “Because it was always a team effort. It was always the both of them.”
The first night in business, the couple took in about $62. Gloria was thrilled, even though it mostly came from family members. It would take another two years for the restaurant to surpass that amount. In the meantime, she threw herself — and her children — into the business.
Boca Chica “was everything,” Koski said. “It was our second home.” Family lore was that when Koski was born, the first stop the parents made with her after the hospital was the restaurant.
“The restaurant is our family,” said son Alfredo Frias. “My mother groomed us in there and expected us to work.”
A small woman with a no-nonsense attitude, Gloria never let her young employees off the hook when they missed shifts. “If a 16-year-old kid didn’t show up, she would call their parents,” Alfredo recalled. “The parents would always send them down.”
Somehow in between the work, Gloria was able to shuttle her four children to activities and rehearsals, lessons and concerts. But her favorite thing to do with her children was take them to ballgames. “She was a boy’s mom,” Alfredo said. “She loved sports.”
Most days, though, Gloria would cook. She would work at the restaurant all morning, come home to make lunch for her family and head back to Boca Chica for the dinner rush. Her specialty was her sopes — fried masa rounds topped with beans, chile sauce and cheese.
Many of Boca Chica’s recipes were culled from Guillermo’s family roots, but Gloria found a way to adapt them to northern tastes. “They cooked Mexican food my dad’s way, but also had to cook Mexican foods for Minnesotans who didn’t know Mexican foods,” Koski said.
It took Gloria decades to acknowledge the cultural impact of the restaurant, which also hosts educational seminars for Spanish-language students. “Sometimes in a humble way, she thought to herself, ‘Wow, look at what I started.’ Like she almost didn’t deserve it,” Koski said.
Gloria retired from the business after her husband died 12 years ago, though she never really left, Alfredo said.
Outside of the restaurant, Gloria devoted herself to her church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Once, a man came into the restaurant looking for Gloria. He seemed nervous and a little anxious, Koski recalled. He found her at a table and explained that he was about to have surgery. He wanted her blessing.
Gloria Frias is survived by her children, Alfredo Frias, Estevan Frias, Eduardo Frias and Cristela Koski; seven grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren, and sisters Vera Velasquez and Aurora Bakke. Services have been held.