When Josh Wamsley opened the popular Mazunte Taqueria in Madisonville six years ago, he was thrilled to bring authentic Oaxacan Mexican street food to his hometown. But, one may ask, what business does a white boy from Madeira have opening a taco stand in Cincinnati?
Mazunte’s food is really good. It’s fresh, flavorful, and, even before taking a bite, it’s easy to imagine it being served from a walk-up window on the beach in Mexico. It feels authentic because it is. The story of Mazunte begins with Wamsley tasting his first Oaxacan mole sauce. Then, it continues with him learning how to make tortillas and tamales from native mothers and grandmothers and friends in a small town in Oaxaca.
When Mazunte opened in 2012, it was the culmination of Wamsley’s world travels and his love for ethnic food and storytelling. But its success has been a team effort, with Wamsley supported by a staff that has built — and now maintains — the company’s authentic Oaxacan flavor.
Seeing — and sampling — the world
Wamsley had always liked cooking, but his first love was telling stories. After graduating from high school, he moved to Southern Florida to pursue a degree in journalism. The next six years were spent doing a little bit of school and a lot of fishing at the beach. When it came time for graduation, there was one class holding things up: Spanish.
With his graduation hanging in the balance, Wamsley took out a student loan, enrolled in an online Spanish class at the local community college, and moved to Europe. He admits he had been “apathetic and lazy” as a kid, not very motivated. Traveling brought out something different in him. It was an adventure in non-stop problem solving and always meeting new people.
“I remember being very present when I was traveling,” he says.
In 2008, he finished his final credits while abroad, traveling between places like Prague, Italy, Hungary, and Hawaii. It was during that time when, among other things, he studied TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and officially caught the international travel bug.
From 2008–2010, Wamsley lived in Korea where his work teaching English was enjoyable, and the afternoon office hours left plenty of time to travel.
He remembers, “There were times I would wake up in the Philippines or Tokyo on Monday morning and still be back at work by 2 p.m.”
In 2010, Wamsley was back in Cincinnati, weighing his options for what would come next. He was considering taking a teaching job in Saudi Arabia, where he could do some writing and travel around the Middle East during holidays off. Maybe he’d move to Vietnam, or maybe Taiwan with a friend. Then, a quick stop for tacos on the way to visit a friend changed everything.
“[The tacos] were so bad,” he remembers, “and they were certainly not Mexican … But this place had opened three locations around [Cincinnati] and I thought, ‘If they can do that, if they can have three locations, what if I did it the right way?”
Wamsley says his favorite cuisine is Southeast Asian, especially from places like Vietnam and Thailand. But something about that bad taco made him more curious about Mexican food, about its diversity and true flavors. He knew he didn’t want to open a full-scale restaurant, but he could imagine opening a street-food style taqueria. With the future in mind, he stayed awake that night writing the first draft menu for what would eventually become Mazunte.
“I’ve always had an affinity for Mexican food, but I didn’t know Mexican food,” he says. “So I told my friend, ‘I’m not gonna meet you in Taiwan. I’m going to go to Mexico.’”
Bringing Oaxaca to Cincinnati
A map of Mexico made out of Cincinnati favorites at Mazunte.
Wamsley knew that if he wanted to bring Mexican food to Cincinnati, he needed to start in Oaxaca, an unofficial epicenter of the blended native Mexican and imported Spanish cultures. So he secured his next teaching position at a university off the beaten path, in a small mountain town in Oaxaca. He arrived a month later, at 4:30 in the morning. He stepped off a bus onto a dirt road with chickens running in the street and not a tourist in sight. He still knew no Spanish.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s 32 states. Located in Southeastern Mexico, it is known for its indigenous cultures and destination beaches. The Oaxacan region had been planted in Wamsley’s mind ever since he’d tasted a regional mole (pronounced “mo-lay”) dish in a restaurant in Seattle, Washington a few years prior. He says that mole is the perfect fusion of native and Spanish flavors. These sauce dishes vary across Mexico and there are seven moles in the Oaxacan region alone.
Over the next 11 months, Wamsley learned everything he could about Oaxacan food — its history, how it developed, and how to properly prepare it. In his time off from teaching English, unless he was traveling or headed to the beach, his landlord and her daughter would teach him to cook. His students, knowing of his desire to learn, would also pass him off to their parents.
“They taught me everything I wanted to know,” he says. “And there was always more I wanted to know.”
The local Mole Negro was the final dish his landlord taught him to cook. It was a great way to send him off, back to Cincinnati to open Mazunte Taqueria, affectionately named after “the sweetest” beach on the Oaxacan coast.
Building a plan and a team
From the very beginning, Wamsley was strategic about designing Mazunte. The Madisonville location — a full mile away from the historic business district — seems odd for such a young, hip restaurant concept, but it was chosen because it met his location plan. It was near I-71, 10–15 minutes from most of the city, close to a few affluent suburbs, and near a few big draws (like the AAA car wash next door and Crossroads Church down the road).
Wamsley was also intentional about putting together his team.
“Design a business that can succeed without you,” he says. “[Then] hire people who are way better [than you], way smarter, and take your ego way down.”
One of his original business partners, John Johnston, handles the finances — something that Wamsley has no interest in doing. Another, Josh Sobeck, relocated his family to Cincinnati to join the Mazunte team as the project leader. (He met Wamsley while teaching at the same university in Oaxaca.) Wamsley’s father is his primary contractor, and countless other family and friends lent a hand in the initial restaurant renovation.
He says the Mazunte staff has always come together very naturally and many employees have been with him since the beginning, working their way up to top leadership roles. Some of his most trusted staff was, literally, hired right off the street.
His kitchen director, Eduardo Gervacio, came in looking for a job during the early renovations. He now manages all three Mazunte kitchens and works with Wamsley to craft the menus. Wendy Enriquez, Gervacio’s niece, was later hired as the director of operations.
“It was very clear that Eduardo was going to be the leader,” Wamsley says. “We have a unique partnership. I’d give him all the credit in the world.”
Together, the Mazunte team has diversified the business. It has grown from one Madisonville restaurant to include the original taqueria, a Mercado, a catering business, a Kroger location, and a downtown restaurant set to open in Spring of 2019. Business, as they say, is booming.
Wamsley admits that owning a restaurant can feel restrictive. Yet, those same things that he loves so much about traveling — meeting new people every day, problem solving, sharing in good conversation and good food — are all built into the business culture of Mazunte. It’s just a different expression of those same passions.
As for the Hispanic community, Wamsley says that his idea of opening a taqueria was initially met with some skepticism, which he understands. But Mazunte is not a gimmick or a fad; it really is all about the food. And Wamsley is really serious about using it to tell the story of Mexico.
“My friend, Lexi is Mexican,” he says. “She came in the first time and she said, ‘I love your tacos; the horchata sucks.’”
“So, we fixed the horchata.”
When You Go:
Mazunte Taqueria is at 5207 Madison Rd. in Madisonville. Counter service open daily from 11 a.m.–9 p.m. A parking lot is available. Go Metro with routes 11 and 12x.
The Mazunte Mercado is a mile down the road at 6216 Madison Rd., and is open daily from 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (closing at 3 p.m. on Sundays). Mazunte Centro will be opening at 611 Main St. downtown in 2019.