the bar at ruiz mexican restaurant photo by danny hommes

Ruiz Mexican Restaurant is a St. Louis landmark

For almost 60 years, Ruiz Mexican Restaurant has been a constant in local Mexican dining, simultaneously guiding customers’ tastes and responding to America’s evolving understanding of what Mexican cuisine represents. Now in its third generation of family leadership under siblings Rachael Rogers and John Marshall – Jose and Hortensia Ruiz’s grandchildren – Ruiz is still engaging in that dialogue and drawing inspiration from traditional Mexican cuisine.

Before moving to its permanent home off Highway 67 in Florissant, Ruiz got its start inside a nearby bar called Roy’s Tavern. Rogers said the restaurant was probably a natural outgrowth of her grandparents’ enjoyment of hosting friends at their home. “He loved to entertain, and he loved a good party, good beer, all that stuff, cigars. When he would entertain, my grandma and his mom would cook for his guests and friends. So, they were just like, ‘Wow, this is so good, I never had this kind of food before,’” she said. She suspects her grandfather’s charisma did the rest. “That kind of gave him the idea that, ‘OK, maybe I can turn this into something.’ I think one of those conversations probably happened at Roy's.”

managers john and leeanna marshall with two of their kids // photo by danny hommes

Within a few months of setting up at Roy’s, Jose and Hortensia established their restaurant in a small unit of a strip mall. The restaurant was initially called La Cocina Mexicana (The Mexican Kitchen), but Jose and Hortensia quickly settled on using the family name instead. Jose and Hortensia took over the other units one by one, but that wasn’t always a smooth process: At one point, the restaurant’s kitchen and dining room were situated in separate units on either side of a laundromat. “My grandma would have regular nightmares about having to run the food outside over to the dining room,” Rogers said. Eventually, Ruiz occupied the entirety of the strip mall, eight units in total, with a capacity close to 250.

Mexican Americans never accounted for a large proportion of the restaurant’s clientele – Rogers and Marshall said their grandparents’ friends were just fine gathering for house parties, home cooking and events hosted by local Mexican American societies. “It became a thing because the people around here that weren’t Mexican became intrigued and wanted to try something different,” Rogers said.

In later years, the rise of chain Mexican restaurants would lead many Americans to equate Mexican cuisine with Tex-Mex dishes. But in 1966, Jose and Hortensia didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations of what a Mexican restaurant should serve except their own. They cooked what they liked and what they knew. The original menu included tamales, tacos, menudo and huevos rancheros.

As Tex-Mex began to dominate, Ruiz adapted its menu, expanding its Mexican offerings to accommodate that broader definition of the cuisine: hard shell tacos, taco salads and chimichangas. “My grandpa hated chimichangas,” Rogers said. “When my grandma was like, ‘We should do these, everybody is doing them, they’re a real big hit, all the customers are asking for them,’ he was like, ‘No.’ And then you have to pay your bills, so he was like, ‘Alright, well, we have to do it.’”

tacos at ruiz mexican restaurant // photo by danny hommes

The restaurant also added bar food such as burgers and hot wings. However, first under Doug and Marisa Marshall, then more recently under their children, Ruiz has turned away from those American dishes to focus more exclusively on Mexican cuisine. That doesn’t mean throwing out the popular Tex-Mex staples – paying the bills remains as important as ever – but Rogers and Marshall said they like to run specials highlighting traditional items. And if those prove popular, they might find a permanent place on the menu. “We’ll continue to circle back to more rustic, more original items,” Marshall said. “Now people want to explore cultures through food more, and that’s giving us the opening to exploit that because people want to be more adventurous.”

These days, it’s not unusual for Ruiz to be asked to cater the funerals of customers who had been eating at the restaurant for decades. For Rogers, Marshall and their parents, these moments are bittersweet, a mix of pride, sadness and loss. “They become like family to us,” Rogers said.

After almost 60 years, a family restaurant is like a rolling genealogy forum for both longtime customers and the owners. “The best thing is there are still people that come here that knew my grandfather and my grandmother and say, ‘I remember when this was just a little place, a little section of the strip mall,” Rogers said. “‘Standing room only’ – we hear that at least twice a day that we're open, which is amazing,” added Marshall.

901 N. Hwy. 67, Florissant, 314.838.3500,