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Mad for the Mex: A Pittsburgh original celebrates 20 years of craft beers, wholesome Mexican cuisine

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Mad Mex founder Tom Baron and his son Max in the original restaurant in Oakland on October 11, 2013. Mad Mex is celebrating its 20th year.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Mad Mex founder Tom Baron and his son Max in the original restaurant in Oakland on October 11, 2013. Mad Mex is celebrating its 20th year.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A mask hangs on the wall of Mad Mex in Oakland on October 11, 2013. Mad Mex is celebrating its 20th year.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A light hangs above the bar at Mad Mex in Oakland on October 11, 2013. Mad Mex is celebrating its 20th year.
Tribune-Review file
Patrons at Mad Mex in the North Hills enjoy lunch.
Haylei Mickey, daughter of Nancy Mickey, recently vacationed at Ocean City, Md., and took along the Daily Courier. While there, she traveled on the Cap May-Lewes Ferry to Cape May. She shopped at the Washington Street Mall and ate at the Phillips Seafood Restaurant, where she enjoyed her favorite food — crab legs.

Tom Baron was running a restaurant-delivery service 20 years ago when he saw Pittsburgh's need for an eatery that featured a festive ambience and the best of the craft beers that were becoming popular in other cities.

He wanted a Mexican menu, but authenticity was less important than serving healthful fare.

“In fact, we didn't want authentic if it meant cooking with lard,” says Baron, a transplanted New Yorker who was then partnering in Wheel Deliver with his childhood chum Juno Yoon. “We wanted to do Mexican the way we like Mexican — more Cal-Mex — with relatively simple recipes and fresh, high-quality ingredients.”

They found an Oakland storefront for their venture, decorated it with barn wood and exotic masks, and called the restaurant Mad Mex, a name inspired by Baron's then-toddler son Max in the midst of a temper tantrum.

As Max grew, so, too, did his father's concept. Max today works at the Shadyside Mad Mex while he completes his senior year in college. Baron's big Burrito Restaurant Group owns and operates 10 Mad Mexes from Columbus to Philadelphia, with more planned for Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

While the group opened five other distinctly different restaurants and a catering company in the past two decades, the focus is on growing Mad Mex, says Baron, who eventually bought Joon's share of the group.

“We've spent the past few years refining the concept and trying to package what has evolved,” Barron says. “We plan on expanding more aggressively than ever.”

They are bucking an industry trend that, according to an Ohio State University study, shows at least 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first three to five years.

“Mad Mex makes money, which is why they keep expanding,” observes long-time Pittsburgh-based food writer Ann Haigh, the co-host and co-producer of “Big Burrito knows how to run restaurants. In Mad Mex, they have a formula — a style — that works.

“They take advantage of fresh, locally sourced products and can make anything vegan for you,” she says. “They use great wit in their menus, and the newest Mad Mex — the one in Shadyside — has a wonderful mural and fabulous upscale decor.”

The signature decor at all Mad Mexes includes masks and other Latin American folk art, some of which Baron buys from a woman in Arizona who uses the proceeds to support a ranch for orphaned animals. Big Burrito executive chef Bill Fuller says, “doing what makes sense for our customers” drives Mad Mex's success.

“Our philosophy is that eating out should be fun, and food should be wholesome as well as tasty,” Fuller says. “Even if it costs us more, we don't skimp on quality. We buy better spices. Mexican oregano has a whole different mojo than Greek oregano. Our chicken breasts are fresh, never frozen. They come from small birds — not big commodity chicks — because they are tender and more delicious.”

Even the Mad Mex margarita is about as pure as a mixed drink can be, he says.

“We use fresh lime juice, triple sec and a little sugar — no high-fructose corn syrup, no artificial color or flavor, no Daily's margarita mix,” Fuller says. “If we could figure out how to get rid of the sugar, that'd be great, too.”

Fuller manages the menus at all of the restaurants owned and operated by big Burrito — including Kaya, Casbah, Soba, Umi, Eleven and big Burrito catering. Raised in DuBois, Fuller had a master's degree in chemistry and was working on a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley when he decided to move back to Pennsylvania and pursue his passion for cooking.

He joined big Burrito a year after the first Mad Mex opened and had a major role in shaping the company's growth.

“Bill came to work at Kaya and helped design that concept,” says Baron, of the Caribbean-style eatery in The Strip. “Within six months, we were doing Casbah.”

Although Mad Mex started before Fuller got involved, he took it to where it is now, Baron says. “He's an incredibly intelligent, hardworking and talented guy. All of our restaurants have great chefs. Bill is the top of the food chain. He's their sounding board and coach.”

The big Burrito group today employs more than 700 people, from waitstaff to the folks in the creative department responsible for communicating each restaurant's brand. Many former associates have gone on to make their mark, including Kevin Sousa, who established himself with Salt of the Earth; Jennifer Bonfili of Avenue B; and Justin Severino, owner-chef at Cure.

“Pittsburgh was 15 years behind the times when big Burrito got started,” Severino says. “Their breaking new ground back then got a lot of other people started.”

Baron muses on where the company has been and where it is now.

“When we opened Mad Mex, Pittsburgh didn't have a vibrant restaurant scene, and we were considered brazen new people in town,” he says. “The stuff we were doing from day one, like farm-to-table, was considered new and interesting, and some of the things on our menu, like chipotle, weren't part of the city's vocabulary.

“Now that we've been around a while, we're considered part of the establishment.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

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