On Tuesday afternoon, butcher Raul Aguilar-Perez was carefully selecting his chiles, toasting the anchos, guajillos, pasillas, and puyas to a char on the plancha to intensify their flavor, then letting them steep as he prepared the spices, ground pork, oregano, and vinegar to make chorizo — a batch of sausage that could potentially change his life.
A tasting was scheduled the next day with both the president and head chef of Di Bruno Bros., the company that gave Aguilar-Perez his first steady job as a new immigrant in the Italian Market over 20 years ago — eventually sponsoring him for his green card before he went on to become an entrepreneur. This audition could be the comeback break he desperately needed after a spell of terrible setbacks.
“Go for your dreams,” his mother, Rosalia Perez, told him Tuesday by video phone from Mexico City when he was feeling hesitant. “You’re going to be OK.”
The past two years have been an epic struggle. Aguilar-Perez lost Los Amigos, the Mexican butcher shop that he and wife, Beatriz Flores, built to acclaim over a decade on South Ninth Street until difficulties with his landlord, who had the false promise of a tenant proposing a restaurant, ended his run. He drifted through a fog of depression and ill-suited construction jobs until a former customer, Carol Mickey of Sam’s Morning Glory Diner, encouraged him to get back to his chorizo craft, then gave him the kitchen space and assistance to reboot.
But then came COVID-19, which last spring put the 43-year-old in the intensive care unit at Pennsylvania Hospital for a perilous five weeks. The father of two was given a 40% chance to survive, he said, but he refused a ventilator for fear he’d never wake up.
“I lost my business, and I almost died. But I’m recovering now and I’m ready to work,” he said. “And if I’m still here, it’s for a reason: I want to do my chorizo for everybody.”
By Wednesday morning, though, Aguilar-Perez was grieving. His 79-year-old mother, who’d seemingly recovered from COVID-19 in December, had taken a turn for the worse overnight with lung complications and died that afternoon in Mexico City.
“I’ll never see my mother again and there’s nothing we can do,” said Aguilar-Perez, who postponed the tasting to make arrangements to help his sister in Mexico. “I hope I’ll have this opportunity again.”
The journey has never been easy for Aguilar-Perez. He’s an American citizen now, but knew very little English in 2000 when he first came to Philadelphia, where he had an uncle and a growing network of fellow Poblanos who’d also begun to settle in South Philly.
He worked at a market, picked blueberries in New Jersey, worked at a tuna cannery, and scrubbed industrial jelly buckets with bleach for 11 hours a day. A part-time dishwashing gig in the Italian Market eventually led to a full-time job at Di Bruno Bros., where his bright personality and unwavering work ethic immediately connected with the family behind the renowned cheese market.
“He had this cool smile that lit up the store and he was a head-down worker from the day he walked in,” said company president Bill Mignucci Jr. “And he found his way into our Italian family. I’ve got old pictures of Raul and Aunt Rita, Raul and Aunt Cecile, Raul and Aunt Edith.”
“Raul had the keys to the store and was the ‘patrón’ of Di Bruno’s growing Mexican workforce,” says Mignucci, explaining why they sponsored Aguilar-Perez for a green card. That work status eventually allowed him and Flores to apply for citizenship under a law that ceased to exist in 2001 but that allowed undocumented immigrants to pay fines and be forgiven for illegal entry, according to his lawyer, Sanjuanita González.
After eight years at Di Bruno’s, Aguilar-Perez struck out on his own in a butcher shop directly across the street: “I said, ‘Thank you, Billy, you did a lot for me, but I’ve decided to do my own thing.’ And he said, ‘I’m very proud of you — you should do this.’ ”
And from the time he opened Los Amigos in 2009, he and Flores earned a loyal following for their tangy Toluca-style chorizo, his ready-to-reheat carnitas, fresh Poblano tamales, and a particularly soulful Hidalgo-style barbacoa, its chile-rubbed lamb steamed to tenderness on the bone for hours in banana and avocado leaves and served with an intense lamb consommé scented with cinnamon and spice.
Friction with his landlord over various issues, however, festered. An acquaintance from the local Mexican community convinced Aguilar-Perez to sell the business to him in 2018 to open a restaurant. They agreed to terms on a handshake. But when Aguilar-Perez arrived to end his lease and transfer the business, the landlord and the acquaintance had already come to independent terms, and Aguilar-Perez ended-up with nothing. (Several attempts to reach the landlord were unsuccessful.)
He was able to remove his equipment because a restaurant was planned for the space. But Aguilar-Perez was out, and in the following months, he’d sit across the street and watch old customers reach for the locked doors, peer in, and walk away.
“I felt so bad. I worked so hard to become a citizen and pay all my taxes. But I trusted people and lost everything,” he said.
The restaurant was never built as the storefront at 927 S. Ninth Street remains vacant.
A comeback after COVID-19
Building any business is hard enough, but challenges can be “compounded for immigrants by cultural and linguistic differences,” says Peter Gonzales, president and CEO of the Welcoming Center, the Welcoming Center, a nonprofit Philadelphia resource center for immigrants that promotes economic growth through an array of services and networking. . “Even if he’s gone through all the processes of becoming a citizen, there are daily challenges he’s going to face, including the overall lack of access to capital, and not having a network of professional services to draw on, that hit immigrants harder.”
The Welcoming Center recently has fostered a growing coalition of Latino restaurateurs around the Italian Market who are forming a mutual aid group to help support the community through entrepreneurship.
Such a group could have guided Aguilar-Perez through his struggles, says Nicole Marcote, the Welcome Center program manager. And they still can help.
But Aguilar-Perez’s own Italian Market network has already responded.
“He’s a good guy, first of all, an honest, hardworking human being. And his product is really good,” says Carol Mickey of Sam’s Morning Glory Diner nearby at 735 S. 10th St., where both a chicken chorizo and a pork version of Aguilar-Perez’s chorizo turned green with fresh peppers are regularly used in the diner’s frittatas and breakfast burritos.
More importantly, Mickey, a labor attorney, helped Aguilar-Perez acquire the licenses to allow him to use the Morning Glory kitchen after hours to produce his food, including the barbacoa, which he markets for delivery from the Los Amigos Facebook page.
Mickey has owned the diner since 2012 when her daughter, Samantha “Sam” Mickey, who opened the Morning Glory in 1997 as one of the pioneers of Philly’s homespun brunch scene, died after a long battle with brain cancer.
Helping Aguilar-Perez, she says, in many ways carries on her daughter’s spirit.
Aguilar-Perez has others in his corner, as well, including Mignucci, who reached out this month after learning of his sickness and his comeback.
“Whether it’s bad luck or bad landlords, you’re still vulnerable,” says Mignucci. “But for Carol to embrace him is not surprising. People like Raul. There’s just something about this guy and his pursuit of his passion.”
It has also inspired Mignucci to offer Aguilar-Perez the possibility of using Di Bruno’s industrial kitchen as an independent producer and perhaps even carry his chorizo. The tasting? A formality to introduce his flavors to chef Ashley James, who worked in Mexico for three years. They’ll resume the process once Aguilar-Perez has sorted out his mother’s affairs and gets back to the business of chorizo and barbacoa in the coming weeks.
“I’m very optimistic that there is a future for Raul’s products and that we are going to be a bridge,” Mignucci said. “I love great South Philly stories because I’ve been part of one with this third-generation business. And Raul has made our lives better because of his story, because it has another chapter. He’s going to reflect on that setback and say, ‘I thought that was the end. But it was really the beginning.’ ”
Los Amigos chorizo, $5.99 a pound with a 5-pound minimum, and barbacoa, $30 a pound with consommé and salsas, can be ordered for delivery with two days’ notice by phone by calling 267-307-2354 and through Facebook. (Note: Business is temporarily on hold due a death in the family.)