STERLING – Willy Rodriguez left Mexico for Sterling in 1971. Years later, he brought a piece of his old hometown here – in the form of food.
Willy’s Restaurant, on Sterling’s far west side, celebrated its 25th anniversary Friday.
In 1987, the Rodriguezes opened the restaurant in a building that once housed a Mexican grocery store.
When Rodriguez arrived in Sterling in 1971, he worked for Octopus car wash for a couple of years. But he said the wages were low. So friends got him an application for work on the railroad.
Rodriguez, now 63, worked with the railroad for 31 years, retiring a few years ago. He and his wife, Maria, started Willy’s Restaurant in 1987, while he still was working full time for the railroad.
These days, Maria, 57, and their son, Jerry, 38, run the restaurant, although Willy comes in an awful lot.
A few years ago, the family renovated the restaurant. Small Mexican flags line one side of the dining room. The walls are yellow and orange, much like the adobe and sands of San Luis Potosi, Rodriguez’s hometown in central Mexico.
His menu is full of photos of the restaurant’s Mexican plates. Rodriguez’s favorite meal is the enchiladas potosinas – of course, from his hometown. Another San Luis Potosi favorite: molcajete, made with shrimp, steak and chicken.
Rodriguez’s friend, Rick Mejia, a retired accountant from Chicago who came to Sterling a decade ago, said many of the plates are his friend’s creations. He said Rodriguez goes around Mexico on vacations and studies how restaurants in different regions make their food. Then he takes what he learns and develops new meals for Willy’s.
“He’s always looking for something new,” Mejia said. “He’s an excellent cook, but does little cooking.”
Willy’s went all out for its 25th anniversary. It brought in a rare live band to the restaurant, Time Bandits, which played Latino, blues and rock music. Usually, the tunes come from a jukebox.
The restaurant also invited area dignitaries to the celebration, including Sterling and Rock Falls mayors Skip Lee and David Blanton, Whiteside County Board Chairman Tony Arduini, D-Rock Falls, and state Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling.
All of the officials showed up and got special reserved parking spots up front. They sat together.
When asked about his favorite meal at the restaurant, Mejia said he didn’t have one. He trusted Rodriguez’s judgment.
“What he eats, I eat,” he said.