Maria Soto grew up loving mole sauce. Her eyes gleam as she describes her mother standing over the family stove on special occasions, stirring the intoxicating combination of chili peppers and chocolate. Soto's new restaurant, Aqua Cafe and Bar, will also serve mole on special occasions, bringing an authentic taste of Mexico to Asheville. The cafe, which Soto co-owns with her husband, Luis Prieto, is slated to open Aug. 22. It promises Latin food for both the curious and accustomed.
Aqua Cafe and Bar, which occupies the former Fiore’s location at 122 College St., will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner upstairs, with DJs and salsa dancing downstairs. The restaurant will offer traditional Mexican delicacies as well as American food like burgers and salads. It is designed to bring Western North Carolina's Hispanic community into downtown Asheville, while encouraging people of all descents to try something new, Soto says.
"Right now, most of the Hispanic people doesn't come downtown, because they don't see much, just bar stuff,” Soto says. “We're trying to educate our own people that downtown is fun. We have art, the theater, that kind of stuff. We'll be sharing with all the other cultures."
Soto and Prieto currently operate Los Nenes Bakery at 1341 Parkwood Ave. and 2077 U.S. Highway 70 in Swannanoa. This neighborhood tienda/carnicería bakes 30-40 Mexican pastries each day, often including conchas, bolillos, tres leches and donas. The cafe will have a rotating selection of baked goods to offer — and in some cases give away. Diners get a free pastry during the cafe's first month of operation. Mole will be served at the restaurant's parties and special events, along with American dinners like chicken breast with mushrooms on typical Friday nights.
Food will be served upstairs and the downstairs bar will offer music and dancing. Soto asserts that there are not enough opportunities for Latin dancing in Asheville and that some of the clubs don't fit her vision for an inclusive place for everyone to dance. "For us, for a Latin person, to be a young person to go to a night club here is not good," says Soto. "We're trying to put a safe environment that you can share with friends, it doesn't matter what color they are, doesn't matter what age they are."
The decor, both upstairs and downstairs, will be similar to Fiore's, which reincarnated as Strada on Biltmore Avenue. The rust-colored walls and dark-wood tables will stay for now, but the dining area will bring some of the outdoors inside. "It will be more like a garden," says Soto. "You can walk around Asheville, you can see water fountains or plants or green stuff. We want to bring it into the restaurant too."
Aqua Cafe and Bar plans to fill a niche in the Hispanic community while serving as a meeting spot for people of all cultures. "You'll always get hungry, so we're trying to bring the flavor to everybody," says Soto. Between the dance club, traditional Latin food and American favorites, the new addition to Asheville’s restaurant scene will have something for everyone.