Cardenas, a long-time chef originally from Mexico, said owning a restaurant is a dream of his, and Tampa opened the door.
“I tried to open (a restaurant) in Marion, but I don’t have the opportunity,” he said. “I guess (Tampa) just heard about me that I know how to cook a little bit and one time I was at the gas station and this gentleman came to me and say, ‘Hector, there’s some people in Tampa that want to talk to you. They’re willing to help you to open a restaurant there.’”
“(I) just give everybody thanks that they gave us opportunity to open this place. They give us a chance. They opened the door for us. This is one of my dreams, that I always like to have a restaurant,” he said.
The restaurant, open Fridays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., offers a variety of Mexican entrees and side dishes. He also tries keeps additional ingredients on-hand for customers who don’t like traditional Mexican food.
“The ingredients that I use are more authentic in the way we cook and prepare everything because everything is fresh, not frozen,” Cardenas said. “And we cook the same day.”
Customers have visited Casa Azteca from local communities as well as area communities including Hutchinson, Topeka, El Dorado and Wichita.
“They just come check us out,” he said. “They’re impressed because they never thought they were going to find something like this in Tampa.”
Although he doesn’t have a degree in culinary arts, Cardenas has many years of experience in the food industry and looks every bit the chef, wearing a white coat and white hat while cooking at the restaurant.
When he was 14 years old, Cardenas first owned and operated a sandwich stand in a park in Mexico. After having a good experience selling sandwiches, he opened a taco shop.
Once Cardenas moved to the United States, he worked on the floor as a busboy and eventual manager for a Mexican restaurant in Westlake, Calif.
Eventually he moved to Las Vegas where he worked his way up to chef at a resort.
“I start working as a helper (at the resort) because I don’t want to take a cook position,” he said. “I always like to start from the bottom.”
“I talked to the chef, and the chef knew that I know how to cook and he offered me the position of a cook, but I said no, I prefer to start from the bottom so I can learn all of the bases and work my way up.”
Cardenas worked 41⁄2 years at the Las Vegas resort, working his way from helper to chef.
Five years ago Cardenas, wife Felicitas, and their five children moved to Marion after meeting a former Marion resident while Cardenas was working for a painting company based in Pittsburg, Penn.
“When I was working for this company, there was a girl working in the crew and she was from Marion,” he said.
“(The girl) didn’t have a place to stay. So, I said ‘why don’t you stay in my apartment until we come back in a couple weeks and maybe by then you’ll have something.’ She find a place and it was a time to move again for us.
“But before that, she said, ‘Hector, why don’t you go and take a look at the house that I have in Marion. If you like it, if your wife likes it, if your kids like it, you can have it, you can stay there and you don’t pay rent at all.’”
“We came here, looked at the house and the kids liked the town. It’s quiet and nice, so that’s how we ended up in Marion,” Cardenas said.
In addition to owning and operating Casa Azteca, Cardenas is employed as the head cook for residents at Marion Assisted Living.