Obituary: Joe Ross co-founded well-known Mexican restaurant chain

He was “proud to have served the first plate of nachos in Ottawa.”

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In the mid-1970s, when Clyde Ross was determined to give Ottawa his first taste of Mexican cuisine, he knew he needed another collaborator: his brother, Joe.

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The older brother lived in Los Angeles, where the Ross’s had grown up. Between jobs at the time, Joe jumped at the idea of ​​coming to Ottawa, his brother recalls.

“It was obvious he wanted to try something new,” Clyde said. “The next thing I knew, he was on a flight.”

In April 1977, the brothers opened an eight-cabin low-rent joint called Rosa’s Cantina near the University of Ottawa. Joe was serving tables and Clyde was cooking. By the mid-1980s, the brothers, who previously had no restaurant experience, and their partners had invested $ 20,000 in several Mexican restaurants in Ottawa – Mexicali Rosa’s, San Antonio Rose and the Blue Bayou – as well as Hernando’s Hideaway in Toronto.

At the end of the 1980s, they created a franchise business that eventually had around 20 Mexicali Rosa branches in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Although the brothers sold the business, the Mexi’s brand still exists in six locations, including three in Ottawa, two in the Maritimes and one in Cornwall.

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Joe Ross died on Monday, less than a week away from his 81st birthday. A father of two sons and a widower, he is remembered by friends and family for his hippie appearance, his exuberant and positive personality, and his love for the Glebe, where he lived, and baseball.

Joe Ross was an artist and his keen eye for design was crucial for restaurants, said his brother, Clyde Ross.
Joe Ross was an artist and his keen eye for design was crucial for restaurants, said his brother, Clyde Ross. Photo by Arieh Bonder /Handout

Clyde Ross, a 79-year-old owner of Feleena’s, a Mexican restaurant in Glebe, said that while he was more active in restaurants, his brother was “more comfortable in the main office.”

Joe was also artistic and his keen eye for design was crucial for restaurants, Clyde said. “He was good at decor. He knew where to hang pictures and what to focus on.

For the first Mexicali Rosa’s, which opened in the Glebe in 1979, Joe picked up antiques and old barn beams in the Ottawa countryside and reproduced images of historical Mexican figures from books in the library of ‘Ottawa. Joe’s idea of ​​having a bar for 20 people at the restaurant, rare at the time, helped make it one of the busiest in Canada in the 1980s, Clyde added.

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The brothers discovered their passion for Mexican food because it was abundant in eastern LA, where they grew up.

Joe was ” proud of the fact that he served the first plate of nachos in Ottawa, ”said Mariana Zita, the partner of her son, Jesse, and one of Joe’s caregivers during the last years of his life.

Joe spent his final months in a long-term care home after the medical problems worsened. Among them was blindness, as macular degeneration had claimed his sight.

Zita recalled Joe as a “phenomenal” storyteller and an “incredibly, incredibly positive man.”

“Especially in the last year or so he’s really taken care of everything,” Zita recalls. “He was able to always focus on what he had and what was going well for him.”

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Arieh Bonder, a longtime friend, described Joe as a “presence… very confident, headstrong, with a good heart.”

“When we got together he did most of the talking,” Bonder said. “He was very interested in politics, the issues of the day. He would have strong opinions; he liked to debate.

“He was very interested in politics, the issues of the day.  He would have strong opinions;  he liked to debate, ”Arieh Bonder said of Joe Ross, who died last Monday at the age of 80.
“He was very interested in politics, the issues of the day. He would have strong opinions; he liked to debate, ”Arieh Bonder said of Joe Ross, who died last Monday at the age of 80. Photo by Arieh Bonder /Postmedia

The son of a sharecropper and schoolteacher who moved from Oklahoma to California to look for work, Joe told stories about his parents as his own death drew near, Bonder said.

“For the past two months he was talking about his parents, how great they were,” Bonder said. “ H ea said his mother told him he was born with a smile on her face and she hoped he would still have a smile on her face in the end. He felt he had a good life. He also said he was ready to check towards the end.

Clyde recalled that his brother was a baseball coach before he came to Canada and his love of the game could be seen in the Toronto Blue Jays jacket he owned. “We have to go to a few World Series games,” Clyde recalls.

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