Barrales Family Brings Authentic Mexican Street Food to the Upstate
By Leigh Savage
Photo by Amy Randall Photography
Jorge Barrales Jr., who co-owns Papi’s Tacos in Greenville and Easley, got an early start making connections in the restaurant industry. He served as translator for his father, Jorge Barrales Sr., when he was interviewing with Carl Sobocinski for a position as a dishwasher at Soby’s.
The Barrales duo clearly made a positive impression: Jorge Sr. took the job as dishwasher and quickly moved up to working on the line in the kitchen.
“Within two weeks, everyone could see the motivation,” Barrales Jr. says about his father. “He only went to school through third grade, and he was not able to read much English, but he could memorize the tickets coming off the line and he made biscuits, salads and desserts. He had the confidence to tell the chef, ‘I got this.’”
Barrales Sr. - known as Papi - came to the United States from Morelos, Mexico, in the early 1990s, working in California for two years. He then returned home to Mexico and he and his wife, Laura, decided to move to America permanently. A relative in the Upstate construction business led the family to move to Greenville when Jorge Jr. was 10 years old.
Barrales Jr. also went on to find success in the restaurant industry, completing an internship at Soby’s while still in high school and then serving as manager of Lazy Goat and Passarelle. He also earned an associate’s degree in business from Greenville Technical College.
The Barrales family always dreamed of opening their own restaurant showcasing authentic Mexican cuisine. In 2001, the family came close to opening a restaurant in Berea, but a few days before signing the lease, the property owner tried to raise the rent. Barrales Jr. says the property owner thought he could take advantage of the family since they were new to the area, but they decided to hold off on the deal.
Fortunately, another opportunity soon presented itself. Barrales Sr. was working as kitchen manager at Lazy Goat when the restaurant’s gelato shop, downstairs from the restaurant along the Reedy River, closed. The shop was vacant for a few months, but Sobocinski, whose Table 301 Restaurant Group owned the space, soon realized what it needed - an authentic Mexican taco shop.
Barrales Sr. had been bringing home-cooked food, including tacos and tamales, to work for years, and Sobocinski knew the family had the skills and knowledge to bring that to the community.
Sobocinski proposed opening the restaurant with Barrales Sr. as chef de cuisine. Sobocinski owned the business for several years before the Barrales family bought him out in 2018; Barrales Jr. left Lazy Goat to join his parents in the business that same year.
“When we created and opened Papi’s Tacos there was never a doubt in my mind that Papi and his family would one day own the restaurant, it was just a matter of how long would it take,” says Sobocinski, founder and president of Table 301 Restaurant Group. “From the moment Jorge Sr. began working with us at Soby’s, he was family. And his family became our family.
“To be so fortunate to have honest, trustworthy, hard working people like the Barraleses working with us, all I wanted to do was to eventually help them achieve their dream of owning a restaurant one day,” Sobocinski adds. “After all, they had helped me start our restaurant group and gain success and then it became time for us to help them do the same. There isn’t a much better feeling than helping someone realize their hopes, goals, and dreams and watch them come to life.”
Papi’s was a quick success, earning a following for dishes using Papi’s grandmother’s recipes. Popular items include carnitas (slow-cooked pork tacos), tortas (traditional sandwiches stuffed with fillings like chicken barbacoa or carne asada) and Travelin’ Taco, which includes shredded chicken, pico de gallo and more, served in a bag of Fritos corn chips.
The restaurant soon expanded to Calhoun Memorial Highway in Easley, and a third location is in the works, Barrales Jr. says.
In addition, Papi’s Tacos often sets us shop under a tent at bars or breweries, and serves as the official taqueria of the Triumph soccer team. Barrales Jr. says buying a food truck is high on the list of priorities.
Barrales Jr., who has three kids ages 10, 8 and 6, got involved with the Hispanic Alliance several years ago, and sees value in telling his story to children. Prior to Covid, he spoke at high schools, discussing how he navigated the school system and became an entrepreneur.
“I grew up in that same system, so I tell kids to listen to teachers and don’t think that just because you are from another country, you don’t have opportunities,” he says.
“It was a culture shock,” he says, remembering how he marveled at the bus that came to pick him up and take him to school when he first moved to South Carolina. He had to travel to Parker Middle School to have access to English as Second Language teachers, and he would spend the final hour of each day with them after spending most of the day attending classes taught in English.
“Kudos to all of the teachers, there were a lot of us, and they were very patient,” he says. “They found a way to get through to us.”
He says the Hispanic Alliance serves an important purpose, and he does “whatever they need,” from sponsoring events to planning programs. “When I came here, a big resource like the Hispanic Alliance wasn’t here yet, so that’s been big,” he says. “I think people from Mexico and Central and South America are not afraid (now) - they don’t feel different. They feel part of the community.”
His community goals also include a Spanish Festival, “a small Fall for Greenville that would showcase not just Mexican but also Central and South American” culture and cuisine.
He wants to share the culture and traditions his family holds dear and also give back to the community that has been so good to his family. “I’ll forever be grateful to my parents for all of their hard work, to Carl for believing in us, and to our communities for continuing to support us,” he says.