Cazuelas Grill moving from Hilltop Mall to San Pablo Ave.

Cazuelas Grill moving from Hilltop Mall to San Pablo Ave.
Esmeralda Gutierrez, owner of Cazuelas Grill, is trying to keep the restaurant's legacy going as it prepares to move out of Hilltop Mall this week.

Cazuelas Grill, a popular Richmond restaurant that’s operated at Hilltop Mall for its entire two-decade-old history, is moving to a new location at 14401 San Pablo Ave. this week as the shopping center is undergoing a significant transformation under new ownership.

For those who wonder over the fate of an eatery that has endured uncertain times at a mall that has financially struggled for years, just know that the owner of Cazuelas Grill, Esmeralda Gutierrez, has a remarkable track record for overcoming adversity.

How Gutierrez went from a server to the owner of Cazuelas in 11 years is an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs. About four years ago, the first owner of Cazuelas needed to sell, as she was moving to Texas. She struggled to find a buyer, however, because the mall at the time was financially struggling and in receivership. Gutierrez, at that time a server, offered to keep the restaurant going to allow the first owner to move to Texas. Despite the mall’s struggles, Gutierrez kept the business, and the food traditions derived from Jalisco, going.

It took her only 2.5 years in monthly payments to purchase Cazuelas.

A wonderful feat, indeed, but a new curve ball was thrown at Gutierrez last month when the new owners of the mall, now known as the Shops at Hilltop, informed Gutierrez that Cazuelas, which was on a month to month lease, needed to depart from its spot to make way for the mall’s transformation.

Gutierrez said her options were slim. Finding an affordable site to relocate came down to a prayer, she said.

“I talked to God and I said, please, I don’t want to lose my customers, my restaurants, my everything,” Gutierrez said.

Her prayers were quickly answered.

She knew the owner of a restaurant serving Central American fare for about three years at 14401 San Pablo Ave. She offered her appliances and the two owners decided to merge their businesses. Now, Cazuelas Grill will continue serving its traditional fare, along with Central American offerings.

The place is small, six tables, and so Gutierrez will be stepping up her delivery side of the business. She worries, of course. There are fast food chains nearby. But then, San Pablo Avenue is a busy thoroughfare, offering more exposure.

No matter. In Gutierrez’s mind, it’s the “Same place, same recipes.”

And perhaps a few more answered prayers are set to come.

Those combined have done much to continue the legacy of Cazuelas Grill.