Carmen and Rick Garcia pose for a photo in their restaurant, General Zapata's, a Southside Caribbean and Mexican restaurant. The couple opened their restaurant in 2009 and took inspiration for its name from his former workplace. (Maeve Kelly/B&W Staff)

General Zapata’s pays homage to childhood with tacos


A roughly 10-by-30-foot restaurant wrapped in bright orange walls and worn wooden floors sits on Bethlehem’s East Fourth Street. 

The space houses just five quaint booths. Following a Taco Tuesday dinner rush, only one of them is filled. 

It’s a group of five elderly women catching up as they bite into tacos. The scent of jalapeños and the sound of laughter rises from their table. 

As they exit, one of them shouts, “The best tacos. The best!”

“See you next week!” Rick Garcia answers.  

Garcia opened General Zapata’s, a Southside Caribbean and Mexican restaurant, in July 2009. Today, he works with his wife Carmen as the owners and operators, a small team of cooks and servers and the occasional help of his daughter. 

The restaurant’s ochre walls are adorned with bits and pieces of the Garcias’ lives: a large print of an Aztec artwork, a plaque that reads, “You can’t make everybody happy, you’re not a taco,” a school-picture-day portrait of their daughter and a framed image of a restaurant sign on the side of Easton Ave.

The sign in the image reads “Zapata’s Place” and is complete with a cartoon of a man wearing a sombrero. 

Zapata’s Place was a Mexican restaurant on the North Side that opened in 1972. Rick Garcia, who was born and raised in Bethlehem, was a server there as a teenager and worked his way up to become the manager before it closed its doors in the mid 90s. 

General Zapata Mexican restaurant sits on East Fourth Street in Southside Bethlehem. The restaurant, where Lehigh students work as servers, is owned and operated by Rick Garcia and his wife, Carmen Garcia. (Maeve Kelly/B&W Staff)

Rick Garcia went on to become a mortgage broker. His wife worked as a real estate agent. 

But after the 2008 stock market crash “dried up finances” and caused their careers to come to a standstill, they realized they were in need of redirection, Rick Garcia said. 

Carmen Garcia reminded her husband he had often talked about reviving Zapata’s Place someday. She thought this could be that opportunity, she thought. 

“I told her, ‘A restaurant is a lot of work,’” Rick Garcia said. “She said, ‘Well, you got my support.’”

While driving along East Fourth Street after deciding to go into the restaurant business, the Garcias spotted a vacant lot across from Molly’s Irish Grille & Sports Pub. It had been on the market for over a year, but nobody had bought it yet. 

It needed some work, Rick Garcia said, but after some light labor, they opened the doors to their Zapata’s Place “spin-off” in 2009.  

“When we first opened the doors, I started getting calls from people all over the country: Chicago, Texas … Texas!” Rick Garcia said. “They asked, ‘Did you open Zapata’s back up? I can’t find food like yours anywhere. I’ve been all over the country, and I’ve never found anything like you guys.’”

General Zapata’s menu is a compilation of items from the original North Side restaurant and recipes from both Rick and Carmen Garcia’s mothers. The Caribbean elements are from Carmen Garcia’s mother from Puerto Rico. 

Rick Garcia said the Mexican food he serves today is what he’s been eating since he was young — either in his childhood home or at the Mexican Club on the Southside his family frequented. 

General Zapata’s was never just a business for the Garcias. 

“I always thought that all the Mexican restaurants serve food like this, but it turns out that we have a niche for it,” Rick Garcia said. “We have a product that not everybody has.”

Each day begins the same way for Rick Garcia: he drops his two kids off at school and then visits a restaurant depot store to buy all the necessary ingredients for the day ahead. He said everything in the restaurant is made from scratch, down to their shells, chips and hot sauce.

The most popular menu items are the nacho salad, chorizo enchilada and, most of all, the beef taco, which is eight inches long. 

Their customer base is largely made up of regulars, some new and some who attended the original Zapata’s Place decades ago.

“There are people that come every Taco Tuesday,” Carmen Garcia said. “I know their orders. They don’t even have to tell me.”

Rick Garcia said the framed image of the Zapata’s Place sign that lives on his wall was a gift from a customer who regularly ate at the original restaurant as a child. 

“These kids back then, they were really young, and now they’re adults,” Rick said. “They come here for the first time after all those years and say, ‘Oh my God, I remember these nachos. I remember the sauce.’”

Rick Garcia said it’s also a “destination place,” as people come from Reading or Wilkes-Barre to dine. Carmen Garcia said some of their dedicated customers even travel from places like Arizona and Dubai. 

Jason Amalraj is a regular-turned-destination customer. He moved from Bethlehem to Los Angeles last year, and every time he returns to the Southside, he makes sure to stop at General Zapata’s. 

“The homemade hot sauce and huge tacos are a meal that I can’t get anywhere else,” Amalraj said. “No other place I’ve tried compares.” 

Devoted customers are what motivate the Garcias to continue their work. 

Rick Garcia’s future plans for the restaurant are simple — maybe obtain a liquor license, maybe move to a larger space someday. He takes his days one at a time, beginning at the restaurant depot at 9 a.m. and ending with a clean kitchen at 8 p.m.

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