This first appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2016.
Given the choice between sitting at home or carving a covered wagon into the butt of a Winchester rifle in his Castelan Designs workshop blocks away from the Historic Stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas, Arturo "El Gorupo" Rojas would choose the latter. "I prefer working," says the tubby, mustachioed 73-year-old native of Yurécuaro, Mexico, in the state of Michoacán. "There is always something to do and learn."
He doesn't know much else. El Gorupo—who earned his nickname at birth because he was born small and white like a bird mite, a gorupo—began engraving guns in the Mexican scrollwork style at the age of 12, taught by his brother Regino. A photocopied cutout portrait of Regino is taped to a white prayer candle on Gorupo's workbench in the gun shop opened byGorupo's son Regino "Gino" Rojas in 2011, shortly after the family moved to Texas.
Castelan Designs allows Gorupo to practice his art in his way—with his hands.
And the work has earned Gorupo customers from as far away as Australia and walk-ins who say his reputation for precise, florid artistry with antique pieces attracted them to him. Members of a biker gang wearing 1%er patches, marking them as outlaws, commissioned Gorupo to engrave their leader's pistol, says Gino. "They were the nicest guys. Very respectful."
A project can take up to two weeks to complete but the hours are erratic. "I work whenever inspiration strikes me," he says. The results of that inspiration fetch as much as $2,600 for single-action Colt Army grips featuring a Texas longhorn steer and Burma rubies, or $60,000 for a custom job. On the day I visited the store, Gorupo was working on an AK-47 repurposed into a sniper rifle.
Behind parallel display cases, his cluttered workbench bears gold plating, tangles of wires, gun grips, rifles, and the weighted chisels and hammers El Gorupo made himself. In a corner is a double-burner electric stove with an ashy hot plate, which turns out to be the engraver's makeshift kitchen. "I cook everything. Bistec, caldo de pollo, carnitas," Gorupo explains. "Everything."
"He'd sleep here if he could," Gino adds. El Gorupo nods silently then changes the conversation.
"Are you married?" the elder Rojas asks me. "Yes," I replied, showing him a picture of my wife. Gorupo smiles and hands me a thumbnail-sized parcel held together by blue painter's tape. "For your wife," he says in measured, tightly mouthed English despite the fact that we have been conversing in Spanish all morning. Inside was a pair of gold-plated dime-coin earrings he had crafted while we were chatting. No one had noticed. Gorupo tinkers constantly. His hands are always creating, whether it be engraving a ram's head into a gun or testing new designs on a belt buckle.
Revolver, which opened in 2012, is a mod joint with folk touches. Mexican devil masks hang next to a collage that reads Aqui no tenemos pinche nachos ("We don't have fucking nachos here"). Flower-print oilcloths are placed over fine white tablecloths. There is an electro soundtrack as well as smoking ceviche and practically backyard goat birria.
Then, there are the seconds-old corn tortillas so hot that if you dare to lift the monogrammed towel and the warmer's lid under it as soon as the stack hits the table, you'll burn. Wait. Wait like you waited for relleno, a blood pudding prepared with bovine offal and pig's blood. Wait like you waited for the tacos de huitlacoche, delicate parcels bearing nutty-scented clusters of the bluish-black corn fungus known as corn smut or corn truffles in English.
This food, it takes time.
Behind the partial wall separating the kitchen from the dining room, time runs differently. Gino's aunt, Tia Tere, is responsible for the scorchingly fresh tortillas. Juanita, Gino's mother, is the head cook, with significant assists from her daughters Maria and Chelo. Juanita is behind the restaurant's signature platters, including the birria, mole, and a runny egg folded into one of Tere's tortillas, the stickiest, most world-silencing taco special I've been served.
Further in the back is Gino's dad in a beret and apron, quietly scrubbing away at dishes that once held his wife's mole or adobo-rubbed grilled Japanese red snapper. Occasionally, he'll look up when someone barks an order or to give a quick scan of the action in the small dining room.
A Colt 1863 Navy .44 caliber revolver Gorupo engraved using a melted gold inlay technique stands framed by bottles of agave spirits above the bar. The bar itself has inlaid pistols. From the restaurant's name to the décor, there are hints of the family business.
A mural of vaqueros at Campestre Chula Vista, Gino's second restaurant, which opened in 2015, is the only hint of the clan's artistic legacy. Here, the specialty is rustic Mexican rancho fare—think unruly platters of pork braised in a tomatillo-chile de árbol sauce pressed against refried beans and yellow rice and myriad steak options—served on the main floor of Hacienda Vista Hermosa, a sprawling, pink-and-blue-hued complex of three social halls overlooking Fort Worth.
During the Sunday buffet, Gorupo mans large copper pots, or cazos, at the end of the line on the restaurant's back patio. In those vessels bob frying hunks of pork for carnitas. The elder Rojas has been tending to the meat for four hours by the time the first customers line up. It's crispy with a nip of sweetness and arrives with a side of tortillas but no utensils. It's all about the hands.
Gorupo didn't want to move to the Lone Star State, but when asked if he prefers working in Mexico or in the United States, he admits it doesn't matter where he works. "It's not important," he says as he grabs a dirty platter in Revolver's small kitchen. "Art doesn't have borders. As long as I get to keep my hands busy and keep practicing, I'm happy."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.