In the fall of 2008 Ron Garza, chef-proprietor of Juan Carlos Fine Mexican Cuisine on High Street in Pottstown, was scouting locations to realize his dream of opening a fine dining restaurant.
Classical guitarist Russell Ferrara was, at that time, in the eighth year of disability from his lifelong music career. He was taking baby steps, post spinal surgery, to reactivate his performance activities. He had just accepted an invitation join the music faculty of the soon to be opened Steel River Playhouse.
In early 2009 Ferrara began to notice construction activity at the northwest corner of High and Penn Streets just three doors down from Steel River Playhouse. Spring brought signage which indicated that the storefront was becoming a Mexican restaurant. When work was nearly complete he walked in unannounced and began playing amidst the construction. Garza hired him on the spot and the two have remained close since.
Ferrara returned to Juan Carlos on Friday nights a few weeks ago after an eight-month absence during which he was on the road with his group Lackawanna Sky featuring Native American Flute player David Rose.
Lackawanna Sky broke out at the April 2014 Launch Festival in Lancaster where they were signed by Spirit Wind Records. They subsequently toured in Georgia and Wisconsin, returning to PA to perform at the Kipona and Spirit of Oneness festivals in Harrisburg and in a continuing series of weekend performances in the Central Market of Lancaster. They are finishing up their first album and will return to Georgia in June.
Surprisingly, Ferrara credits much of this success to his tenure at Juan Carlos.
“I was introduced to the Native American flute at Juan Carlos,” Ferrara said. “On an quiet night I noticed a woman had lingered long past dessert. She approached me asking if I could wait ten minutes until she returned. She returned with a case full of flutes, chose one, announced the key and off we went!”
Within three weeks, the duo had made a demo and been accepted to perform at the 2010 International Native American Flute Association festival. That partnership did not work out long term but the recordings circulated and came to the attention of David Rose of Elizabethtown.
Ferrara said, “David contacted me in June of 2013 as I was leaving for a tour with Candace Keach, Principal Flute of the Macon Symphony. Not long after I returned David and I gave our first ever performance at Juan Carlos.”
For his part, Garza was busy during Ferrara’s absence as well. Juan Carlos was nominated in two categories of the WPHL 17 ‘Hot List’ competition. Garza brought home a win in the “Best Mexican” category as well as a second place in the “Best BYOB” category. In addition, Garza collaborated with Steve Armstrong of Armstrong Ales in East Pikeland to create the first ever Mexican-style lager brewed in Pennsylvania.
Garza credits Ferrara with lending a hand in the first year the restaurant was open.
“I guess we were a little green when we first opened.” Garza said. “Russ introduced me to Anthony Bellapigna of sister restaurants Ariano and Fellini’s in Media, PA. We met with him on a night that Russ was playing at Ariano. Anthony helped me to streamline the menu. He sent one of his best managers to Juan Carlos and made lots of great suggestions. Russ has been with me since the beginning.”
The two often talk about their goals and display a genuine regard for each other’s artistry.
“I’m a foody,” Ferrara said. “My father owned restaurants and cooking is my hobby. I immediately noticed the passion and creativity that Ron displays in the kitchen.”
Garza’s response to that was simply, “Yes, Russ and I are the same in that way.”
Juan Carlos, 235 E High St. Pottstown is open 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Catering is available anytime in the Wine Cellar.