"It's like a big family," Tita Papachoris said near the end of the interview. Those words sum up what for many is the essence of Papachoris' Zulas Restaurant.

Zulas is synonymous with Nogales. Ask anyone in regions north of Santa Cruz County to identify an establishment in our community, and chances are this restaurant is the one they pick.

For some, it's the pecan pie a la mode, for many the Shrimp Papachoris dish, and for yet others the lamb shanks. But the food is only part of the story, as Tita Papachoris pointed out. It's the family atmosphere that has been a part of the red-brick building on Grand Avenue for the 17 years George and Tita have owned this icon, and for the almost 35 years before that when the Moore and Best couples opened the doors for the first time.

The Papachoris family bought the restaurant from Helen Best and Margo Moore, who operated the business following the deaths of their husbands. For George, it was a dream come true. His father was one of the pioneers in the produce industry in Mexico, and although trained as an accountant, George got his start in the business as a dishwasher in Miami, Arizona, at the Copper Hills Restaurant.

"One day the cook who was responsible for the steaks didn't show up, and George was asked to fill in," Tita Papachoris said. "People really liked how he prepared the steaks, and from then on, he was the cook."

The couple moved back to Nogales, and George worked in several area restaurants before they took over Zulas itself. Tita works "on my side of the building," supervising the waitresses and handling the bookkeeping while George "works on his side" as chef.

Their four daughters have all helped out before going on to successful occupations of their own. Melina is a teacher at Mitchell Elementary, Martha is a graphic designer in New York, Natalia works for the Department of Economic Security, and Ana is the Nogales Unified School District assessment coordinator.

As Tita pointed out, her "family" is much larger than her daughters and the 12 grandchildren from their blended families.

Pictures of some of the more faithful customers line the walls, and it was only a lack of space that has prevented dozens more from being added to the gallery. There are a number of regulars who stake out their own tables every morning representing four distinct groups: law enforcement officers, lawyers, real estate personnel, and a host of retired businessmen.

Back when I was a court-and-cop reporter, if I wanted to ask someone a question and could not find him or her in the office, I often dropped by Zulas in the hopes of meeting my deadline. I was rarely disappointed.

Times change, and there are new faces around the Formica tables, but one thing that has remained constant is the large helpings and familiar flavors of a dessert or full meal.

The Zula and Tita burgers (Swiss cheese and bacon) are super popular with the younger crowd while the Greek salads and lamb dishes appeal to the older set. Seeing how I refuse to acknowledge which group I truly represent, I opt for the Zula burger on most occasions.

The weekday luncheon buffet offers an opportunity to sample a wide variety of dishes around an ethnic theme. The offerings rotate among Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and American. Sunday morning features a brunch, complete with frijoles.

In these times of trouble and anxiety, treat yourself to some comfort food and good company. Go ahead and splurge on a piece of homemade pie. After all, what are a few extra calories among family?

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