Crime & Courts

Children of slain restaurateur revive Raul’s restaurant in Wauconda

Siblings’ new restaurant venture filled with flavors, memories and dreams

Raul Briseno Jr., and his sister Alexandra Strohmaier, the children of the late Raul Briseno Sr., stand in the front window of their father’s first restaurant on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. They are opening up a restaurant in the original location where their dad opened up his first Raul’s Burrito Express in Wauconda. It has been 21 years since his father was murdered at the Burrito Express he owned in McHenry.

The children of a man gunned down in an infamous McHenry crime almost 21 years ago are opening a Mexican restaurant in the same Wauconda location they spent most of their time with him as children – the original Raul’s Burrito Express.

Alexandra Strohmaier, 27, and Raul Briseno Jr., 33, both of Algonquin, are the children of the late Raul Briseno Sr., who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1987 at about 21 years old with $100 in his pocket, a new bride and a dream.

In 1993, thanks to a $30,000 loan from a friend, two partners and a collection of authentic Mexican recipes, he opened his first restaurant, Raul’s Burrito Express, at 112 E. Liberty St. He eventually bought out his partners and expanded the restaurant to include more seating.

He would go on to own three more restaurants of his own and help several of his 11 siblings move to the McHenry County area and open their own. Today, there are eight restaurants in and around McHenry, Lake and Cook counties owned by Briseno family members.

Continuing on with their father’s vision, recipes, use of fresh ingredients, attention to detail and a “quality over quantity” approach, the siblings said they hope to reopen the Wauconda location by April as “Raul’s.”

“Opening this restaurant means keeping my father alive, keeping his memory alive,” Raul Briseno Jr. said.

It will cost about $100,000 to replace the kitchen equipment, decorate and meet the building codes required by the village, the siblings said. Strohmaier, a married mother of three young children, has been able to secure $75,000, leaving a shortfall of about $25,000.

Raul Briseno Jr., a married father with an infant son, said he quit his job at a Schaumburg car dealership to devote all of his time to opening and running the restaurant.

It has been challenging, they said, but they have been surprised by the kindness of some of their father’s old friends. Many have stepped up unexpectedly and helped in finding necessary items such as freezers, grills, prep tables and pots and pans at affordable prices.

One of their father’s friends sold them multiple sets of tables and chairs for $500, knowing they could have sold for at least $17,000, Strohmaier said.

“It was definitely a blessing,” she said, adding that there have been many such blessings along the way. “I really felt like my dad was saying, ‘I’m going to put people in your place so your paths cross.’ ”

Her brother added, “It felt nice [that] they cared enough to take care of us like that.”

“When they were dealing with us, it was like they were dealing with our dad,” he said. “Like we were buying our first tables and chairs with our dad by our side – like he was there with us.”

Raul Briseno Jr., the son of the late Raul Briseno Sr., sits Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, where he used to watch his dad prepare food when he was a child. Raul Briseno Jr. is opening up his own restaurant with is sister, Alexandra Strohmaier, in the original location where his dad opened up his first Raul’s Burrito Express in Wauconda. It has been 21 years since his father was murdered at the Burrito Express he owned in McHenry.

Strohmaier and Raul Briseno Jr. recently recalled memories of when they were young children and their father and mother ran the restaurant.

They remembered playing in the back of the restaurant with boxes and chef hats, holding the door open and cleaning and wiping off tables for tips. They recalled their father putting a box up at the counter for them to stand on so they could meet customers and help take orders.

“We spent more time at that restaurant than we did at home growing up,” Raul Briseno Jr. said. “My dad used to run to the back [of the restaurant] and have me roll up his sleeves.”

Their father, whose life plan was to work every day as hard as he could and then retire at age 50, was killed March 6, 2001, in a botched robbery at his McHenry restaurant, Burrito Express. He was 36.

The tragedy would take the Briseno family on a years-long journey winding through the court system, looking on as Kenneth Smith, formerly of Park City, was convicted three times and each time sentenced to 67 years in prison. But Smith denied being present the night of the fatal shooting and filed many appeals over the years. He eventually won an appeal and was released May 6, 2021, after serving almost 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors at the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office stand behind their case and are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal challenging Smith’s release.

Jennifer McMullan, the alleged getaway driver, also was released from prison. Two other men were convicted in connection with the incident and have completed their sentences.

After Raul Briseno Sr. was killed, his widow, Leticia Briseno, ran the Wauconda restaurant and opened Raul’s Mexicana liquor and grocery store in an attached next-door unit. She sold the store after three years, Raul Briseno Jr. said.

In 2008, one of Raul Briseno Sr.’s siblings took over the Wauconda restaurant. Raul Briseno Jr. said it always was his plan to one day take back the restaurant. His uncle closed the restaurant last year and relocated down the street to 316 W. Liberty St. as Alonso’s Burrito Express.

Raul Briseno Jr. recalled the first time he was in what was at the time a pizza restaurant and a real estate agent showed them around. It was 1993, and Raul Briseno Jr. said he was about 5 years old.

“I remember coming in here with my dad when he was going to buy it,” Raul Briseno Jr. said Monday as he stood in the exact spot his father often stood watching his cooks at the grill.

Raul Briseno Jr., and his sister Alexandra Strohmaier, the children of the late Raul Briseno Sr., stand behind the counter of their father’s first restaurant on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. They are opening a restaurant in the original location where their dad opened up his first Raul’s Burrito Express in Wauconda. It has been 21 years since his father was murdered at the Burrito Express he owned in McHenry.

During this time, the Brisenos were living in the basement of a relative’s home. They soon moved into an apartment above what was Mr. McFeely’s Bar. The apartment was within view and walking distance of 112 E. Liberty St.

On Tuesdays, McFeely’s would let Raul Briseno Sr. make tacos for Taco Tuesdays, using the bar owner’s recipe for chicken and steak tacos, Raul Briseno Jr. said. When he opened Raul’s Burrito Express, he took the recipe with him. That recipe, along with recipes from past generations, created the authentic Mexican flavors the restaurant became known for. Those recipes will continue with the revived Raul’s, the siblings said.

The restaurant and the Briseno family have been well known in the community for decades and supported by local residents such as former Village President Lincoln Knight.

“I wish Raul and family all the best on their venture in Wauconda,” said Knight, who currently is the Wauconda Township supervisor. “Their dad was a good man and brought a great restaurant to the area. He always tried to help people by providing jobs in the area.”

The siblings said they look forward to sharing what their father created for them with their children for years to come.

Strohmaier said because she was so young at the time and left with only faint memories of her father and the restaurant – he was killed three days before her sixth birthday – the experience of opening Raul’s has given her “a chance to connect with him.”

“[I’m connecting] with the experiences he went through with what I am going through now,” she said. “So without him being here, it feels like I get to know him more.”

She also sees opening the restaurant as a way of providing security for her three children, ages 7, 3 and 4 months. She wants them to have what she and her brother had as children and the memories they have, “like capping the salsa or getting the ice.”

“Opening the restaurant allows me to give my son the same quality of life our father gave us,” Raul Briseno Jr. said. “Opening the restaurant in the same place, space is very emotional, and it’s like bringing our childhood back to life. It’s like bringing his dream back to life.”