May 5th - Authentic Mexican Comfort Food
Author: Paul deVere
Cuper Vargas is a kind of Victor Kiam when it comes to Mexican Restaurants on Hilton Head Island, with a bit of a twist. Kiam became something of an advertising legend when, as CEO and spokesman for Remington, in television commercials and print advertisements he said, “I liked this razor so much I bought the company.”
Here’s the Vargas twist. He wanted real Mexican food—the kind he grew up on in San Luis Potosi—so much that he opened a restaurant. “When I came here 12 years ago, a friend took me to a Mexican restaurant, but it wasn’t the real thing. I was starving for real Mexican food,” Cuper said.
May 5th Grill and Cantina celebrates its first anniversary this month on (what else) May 5th. Vargas, along with brother and co-owner Fabian, are pleased with the results. They know they have a ways to go to feel secure, if there is such a feeling for restaurateurs.
Note the name, May 5th. Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the victory of a four-hour battle between 4,500 Mexican troops against 6,000 highly-trained French troops in Mexico’s road to freedom from Napoleonic rule in the battle of Puebla in 1862. In some Mexican states, and in the United States, it parallels the 4th of July.
Remembering the first days, Cuper Vargas said, “You think you know everything when you’re a waiter. But we didn’t know anything. We started from scratch,” he said, smiling. Cuper’s reference to a “waiter” reflected the brothers’ experience on wait staffs at island restaurants like The Old Fort Pub, CQ’s and Antonio’s.
In terms of both the restaurant business and the restaurant location—in the Sapelo Building, at 21 Office Park Road—“scratch” fits well. Site of a coffee house-style restaurant back in the days when USCB’s south campus was housed in the Carolina Office Park complex, it took months to fashion the space into a restaurant that appealed to Cuper and Fabian’s requirement for authenticity.
“We really didn’t have a plan,” Cuper said. But he had an idea. “One day we do this, the next day we do that. A lot of friends helped build it. If I had to dedicate the restaurant, I would dedicate it to our friends. They have been so good to us.”
Those friends came from the island’s food and beverage industry, helping with everything from cleanup and painting to upholstery. Fabian’s wife painted a large mural at one entrance and decorative art on other walls. A dramatic and large bas-relief angel hangs prominently on one wall, true Mexican art that Cuper brought from home.
Those same food and beverage friends who helped put the restaurant together are also some of May 5th’s best customers. The relationships forged by the brothers in their years in the restaurant business have evolved into something every restaurant needs—loyal customers. “They have helped so much,” Cuper said. The restaurant business is cyclical. Some weeks it is up; some weeks, customers seem to vanish. The Vargas’ friends are aware of this and visit during those down times.
“People think ‘real’ Mexican food is hot, too spicy. But it isn’t at all—can be flavorful but not hot. I think this makes us different from anyone else. We don’t do anything from a package. We do it fresh,” said Cuper. “Those dishes I have on the menu have been Mexican cuisine for centuries.” And those menu items are made from “scratch,” too.
Cuper emphasizes that neither he nor his brother are chefs. “My job is ‘social,’” he said, taking on the responsibilities of host. But titles are a little too formal for May 5th. But as far as the kitchen goes, he lets the professionals handle the authentic cuisine. Before they opened, the brothers got the ultimate professional to prepare the recipes: their mother.
Cuper enjoys introducing new tastes to guests of May 5th. “Like our octopus. At first, people would say, ‘Octopus?’ But they would try it and now they come in and have sautéed octopus and a glass of wine. That’s it.” Or the chicken mole. “In Mexico, mole is served for special occasions, like birthdays and Christmas. When people ask about the sauce and I tell them one of the ingredients is chocolate, they make a face. But it is now a favorite,” Cuper said.
What is the goal for May 5th? Cuper said his job is “trying to make people comfortable eating here.” Authentic Mexican comfort food. Nice goal.
May 5th Grill & Cantina
21 Office Park Road
Sapelo Building – Suite 105