Lisa Wong is San Antonio's Risk-to-Riches Restaurant Story
When Lisa Wong opened her first restaurant at age 18 with the $7,000 she had saved for college, she knew it was a big risk.
Her business partner backed out at the last minute. Nevertheless, Wong overcame the obstacles and led her restaurant, Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant, to success in San Antonio, Texas. Since then, her portfolio has grown to include several concepts throughout a 36-year career in the industry.
“I learned early on that a setback shouldn’t discourage you from moving forward,” Wong says. “When one door closes, a much better one usually opens up. This has happened numerous times in my restaurant business.”
In 1992, Wong purchased Rosario’s restaurant out of bankruptcy court with a plan to turn it around. The restaurant encompassed less than 2,000 square feet and was located in the historic Southtown district, which was undergoing revitalization at the time.
Wong says it took a while to gain neighborhood support, but the more the staff marketed the restaurant to the entire city and visitors, the more it attracted foot traffic and motivated other businesses to come to the area. Rosario’s quickly outgrew its space, so Wong renovated the patio to create outdoor seating. But as traffic continued to increase, along with wait times, the restaurant needed to expand again.
In 1999, Wong moved Rosario’s two blocks north to a 10,000-square-foot space, with two main dining areas, a spacious bar, private dining rooms, and a bandstand for live music. Then, 15 years later, Wong opened a second location, called Rosario’s Restaurant y Lounge, in San Antonio’s Northside. This time she opted for a contemporary building with a bar, dining room, outdoor patio, and lounge area with DJ box.
The menu covers Mexican specialties, from Flautas Especiales, corn tortillas filled with beans, spinach, mushrooms, and chipotle sauce then topped with a tomatillo avocado green sauce, crema, and queso fresco, to Enchiladas Mexicanas, three queso fresco–filled enchiladas topped with chilies guajillo and pasillas and served with avocado, cabbage lime slaw, and grilled jalapeños.
“It’s true what they say about having a great location, but more than that, it’s about being consistent with everything you offer your guests—the food, service, price, and ambiance, it’s all part of the whole dining experience—and it’s something we’ve done for 25 years,” Wong says. “Rosario’s continues to be the anchor tenant in this historic neighborhood that is so close to downtown.”
Wong has also formed a joint venture company to manage and operate the river barges and concessions for portions of the San Antonio River Walk, after being awarded a 10-year, $100 million license agreement from the city. She will partner with Houston-based dining group Landry’s, along with another entrepreneur and former Texas secretary of state, Hope Andrade. “I’ll be busy with this new tourism business, but I still plan for growth for Rosario’s and we’ll continue to keep our eyes open for other location opportunities,” Wong says.