Open the door to Phoenix Coqui, and the first person you’re likely to see is co-owner Alexis Carbajal rushing a plate to a table or standing behind the cash register, always ready with an energetic, “Hola!” 

Juan Ayala, Alexis’s fiance and Phoenix Coqui’s other co-owner, is normally in the kitchen, mashing ingredients for mofongo. On a hot day in October, the restaurant feels like a reprieve from the desert with the Puerto Rican flag waving above a banana-yellow awning and wood-paneled fans keeping the indoors breezy.

Juan is making his way toward the front door.

“He’s just going to get more of an ingredient,” Alexis says with a long smile. 

In one fluid motion, the two turn toward each other, pause for a moment and exchange a quick glance before Juan leaves. This is the dance they do every day.

They’re partners in work and life. Just like this, together, they built their restaurant up from an idea on the sandy beaches of San Juan, Puerto Rico — the same place their relationship took root.

Phoenix Coqui’s walls are a warm yellow, the kind of color that calls to mind an abuelita’s cozy cocina on sunny days. That feeling is organic and by design.

Juan is the head chef and says his abuela’s recipes inspire his cooking. Employees and customers alike say that from the atmosphere, to the food, to the people behind it, Phoenix Coqui feels like home.

Alexis says Phoenix Coqui is about boricuas en el desierto — Puerto Ricans in the desert — who are craving el sabor de la isla, or a taste of the island. In a place like Phoenix, those flavors can be difficult to come by. So Alexis and Juan gave them a place to live: First, in a food truck and more recently, in a more permanent place at 15th Avenue and Indian School Road in Phoenix.

“Everything we’ve done has come from a place of love,” Alexis says. “Ultimately, Phoenix Coqui is a love story.” 

Alexis Carbajal, left, and Juan Ayala hold up some of the classic boricua dishes that Phoenix Coqui serves. Credit: Courtesy of Revista Urbana

Alexis and Juan are among the more than 59,000, or nearly one in four, Latinx or Hispanic business owners in Phoenix, according to 26th annual DATOS report on the power of Latinos in Arizona and across the U.S. In Tucson, Latine people own more than 17,000 small businesses in the desert city.

Phoenix Coqui’s story didn’t begin in the desert, though. It began nine years ago in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Alexis says he needed a break from working in the world of startup businesses, so he headed for “La Isla del Encanto.”

“Initially, I was there on vacation for two weeks. Essentially, I bought a one way ticket, and I was just there to explore and find myself,” he says. “It was probably, in retrospect, the biggest, craziest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Juan was already living on the island. At first, the two connected online while Alexis was visiting. After a month of talking and texting, they had their first date. 

From there, “todo se fue natural,” as Juan puts it.

“I’m definitely the planner and organizer, and Juan is definitely my balance,” Alexis says. “He is fun-loving and spontaneous, and the life of the party. So he keeps me grounded, and I balance him out, too.”

With his experience in the world of startups and Juan’s career in the restaurant business, Alexis says it was only a matter of time before they combined their talents.

We knew that we wanted a business,” he says. “We both knew that we love food. We both knew we wanted to share and have culture be a part of it.”

They chose a logo mirrored after the Indigenous Taíno cultural symbol for a Coqui. It’s painted in yellow dots and swirls and pays homage to Puerto Rico’s native tree frog, a tiny creature that makes its presence know en la isla with a screeching song: KO-KEE.

The couple represents both halves of their business’s name: Alexis is the “Phoenix.” Juan is the “Coqui.”

Together, they’re building a presence and delivering a part of Juan’s boricua culture to Alexis’ hometown, a place known for the food and people of his own Mexican culture.

“Food is a universal language”

In 2014, the couple decided to move together, back to Alexis’s hometown: Phoenix. 

“It was his idea,” Alexis says of bringing their lives and business into the desert. 

“Porque siento que la gente debe conocer lo rico que es la comida de nosotros,” Juan says. In English: “Because I feel that people should know how delicious our food is.”

Juan mostly speaks in Spanish. Alexis grew up in Arizona and is used to speaking Spanish and English with his community and immigrant parents from México.

“I still loved the idea of living on the beach and wanted to stay,” Alexis recalls, “but I also saw the opportunity for us to do something really cool here.” 

That “something,” Alexis says, was bringing la magica de la isla to a place that didn’t have many other options for authentic Puerto Rican food.

“Having me be the Mexican in Puerto Rico and Juan become the Puerto Rican in the desert, we kind of just took the flipside of the same coin,” he says, “and addressed the need for authentic food that helps people connect to their roots.”

When they arrived in Arizona, Alexis returned to work in startups and Juan worked part time. Whenever they had enough down time, they began to put their dream to the test in Alexis’ old car.

They started advertising on Facebook, inviting people to try their foods, saying: ‘Hey, we’re having this plate made today. Let us know if you’d like it delivered.”

“Juan would cook up, at home, a big batch of food,” Alexis says. “We would put it in coolers to contain the heat and I would drive around town delivering food to make sure people could taste our Puerto Rican recipes.” 

Soon, they began delivering to offices, schools, and individual homes. For the next two years, the two saved money. With every delivery, they were working toward some day bringing Phoenix Coqui out of their home kitchen, out of their car, and into a space of its own.

Then, in 2017, Phoenix Coqui rolled out a food truck. They got their first big gig almost immediately.

“We actually did our very first event ever for a women in tech conference, and we had a lot of people on our first time out,” Alexis says. “We were [often] booked for these kinds of catering events and then slowly started finding out how to get invited to festivals.”

On top of catering, every weekend the Phoenix Coqui truck could be found parked at The Rock, a gay bar in the Melrose District. 

“Food is a universal language. It just brings us all together,” Alexis says. “From the get-go, we would have people from all different walks of life. Different cultures, different backgrounds. All sitting at a little table at the parking lot at The Rock.”

They were making space for Phoenix Coqui in the community, even if they weren’t able to move their restaurant from the streets to its own place yet.

Settling down and settling in

They worked together, growing their business, always searching for a permanent place to serve their boricua plates past the weekends at The Rock. Alexis and Juan knew they wanted to stay close to the second family they’d found in the Melrose District. When they spotted the little yellow building on 15th Avenue, they knew it was for them.

They put in a bid, hoping to close on the property by last November. They had to wait months longer than expected. But in February, they finally got the keys. And Phoenix Coqui finally had a home.

Puerto Rico native Isis Aviles has been working at Phoenix Coqui for over six months. She says visiting Phoenix Coqui is another way to feel at home. Credit: Kirsten Dorman

Last April, standing behind the counter with the place half decorated and a bucket of freshly sliced plantains ready for the fryer in the back, Alexis is talking about this next stage.

He says they knew they needed to take their time with it, and trust the communities they loved so much to show them — and their business — love.

“Like anything else, we’re not rushing into anything with our grand opening (or) with our wedding,” Alexis says “You know, those are things that we’re working towards, but don’t necessarily have to stress about the planning.”

The couple got engaged in 2021. Alexis proposed to Juan in the same place they found each other, fell in love, and set out to start a business together: On the beach in Puerto Rico. 

Juan posted a photo on social media. He’s wearing a floral shirt and shorts, and Alexis is on one knee, wearing white.

In the caption, Juan writes: “Fue un momento mágico y perfecto. Obviamente dije que SI, no hay cosa que quiera más que compartir el resto de mi vida con él.” 

Once Alexis popped the question, they still chose to put what they were building together in Phoenix before their wedding.

They hosted their grand opening in the spring, officially bringing Phoenix Coqui indoors. The truck isn’t off the streets forever, though. They still take it out for catering and special events, like festivals. Since debuting their stationary location, Alexis says he and Juan were blown away by the community support. That support was particularly felt, he says, over the summer.

“Normally, we closed shop,” he says. “And then we are in Puerto Rico, visiting family, taking a break. It honestly just gets too hot to be in that little food truck with the fryers on, with the summer heat here.” 

Alexis says he and Juan expected most of their customers to do the same — leave Phoenix for a couple months in search of somewhere cooler. 

“One of the biggest surprises we had this year was how much community support we had from corporate partners that hire us for catering,” he says. “We had a very busy summer.”

Part of that transition to year-round service has come with a learning curve, Alexis says. A customer left a Yelp review, disappointed that Phoenix Coqui had run out of an item. Reading that review led to the realization that Phoenix Coqui had a new, bigger capability to serve more people. 

“It really was a wakeup call of: We need to quickly adjust to this new level, this new volume of food that we’re having ordered,” he says. “We want to prevent waste, but we also want to prevent people from driving out to a restaurant and finding that their [desired] dish is not available.”

In early October, Alexis says Phoenix Coqui saw its biggest sales day on record. 

“We had both the restaurant and the food truck open. We were at the Puerto Rican festival,” he says. “And to have those both running and really see what our capability really is — to see that jump from where we were a year ago to now — is tremendous.”

Now that they had found their place close to the Melrose District where they got their start, where they built a second family, the couple wanted to continue giving back to the communities they’re a part of. 

Touches of La Isla del Encanto can be found all around Phoenix Coqui. Credit: Kirsten Dorman

Latino y gay: “Those two things are intertwined in a way that you can’t really separate

Phoenix Coqui is a love story that started with Alexis and Juan, but it’s grown. It’s about love from the Latino community. Love from the LGBTQ+ community. And love from the greater Phoenix community.

“Juan and I, as gay owners, we’ve had a lot of support from the LGBTQ community,” he says. “We have a lot of cross sectionality with being in the Melrose to start with, having the support of not just the Puerto Rican community, but the Latino community in general. It all just unifies us.”

In both communities, Alexis points out, family is a big factor. Many Latino cultures hold family in high regard, and many LGBTQ+ circles act as found families when biological ones are not accepting.

Jesus Martinez has worked in Phoenix Coqui’s kitchen since early 2022. He says that sense of family extends to the restaurant’s work environment, too. 

“Phoenix Coqui is really important for me because the owners are LGBTQ friendly,” Jesus says. “We accept everybody here. Everybody’s welcome to visit us, try our food, talk to us.”

Jesus is a Puerto Rico native. Feeling supported at his place of work and connected to his culture, he says, especially away from the island, is important to him.

“To feel happy and be yourself at work is really important,” he says. “And that’s how I feel here.”

Remaining involved with both the Latine and LGBTQ+ communities is important to the couple as business owners, Alexis says.

“We had a poster up for a drag ball and for the Puerto Rican Festival, and they both represent us because we are in cultures and communities and representatives,” he says. “Those two things are intertwined in a way that you can’t really separate it.”

Being openly queer and Latino is central to the identity of Phoenix Coqui as a business. 

“It’s one of those things where we see it as a strength of ours, that we can combine those two underrepresented communities,” Alexis says. 

Although he and Juan are fortunate enough to have families who accept them, he says they feel lucky in that regard. As Latinos, Alexis says there can be certain expectations that might not always match up with where life takes many in the LGBTQ+ community.

“There are very complicated factors of what the expectation is of your son,” he says. “My family probably thought that they were raising a boy who was going to grow into a man, that was going to marry a woman, that was gonna have children, and their grandchildren were gonna come play at their house.” 

Between religious and cultural expectations, Alexis says he worried about being accepted by his immediate family after he came out.

“Growing up gay, you do feel a lot of insecurity about how you will let your parents down,” he says. “(But) one of the most special moments I’ve had, not just with my business but in my life, has been with my father, who is a very traditional, very Catholic, Hispanic man.” 

Alexis says his father is someone who is always looking for a way to help out. After Phoenix Coqui opened its doors at the brick and mortar location, he came by to help with a plumbing issue. 

“Someone making a delivery, that’s here on a weekly basis, asked my dad, ‘Do you know how awesome your son is?’” Alexis recalls. Sitting at a table at Phoenix Coqui, he pauses to take a deep breath, holding back tears. “My dad responded and was like, ‘Yes, I do know, because I am so proud of him.’”

Alexis says he always knew that his father loves him, but hearing those words was different. He remembers that his dad went on to say: “I tell people all the time, I know my son is gay but he’s a badass.” 

“He’s already redefining that notion of what it is to be gay,” Alexis says of his dad. “Now he sees his son in the gay community, as a leader in the community, a business owner and someone that other people now can say, ‘Wow! The things that he’s doing, it’s not like he did them despite being gay. He made it being Latino and gay. And here he is, in this position now.”

Juan’s parents are pastors. Alexis says they accepted his and Juan’s relationship from the start. Both families share a love for their faith, and for their sons.

Pa’ el futuro: Opening new doors for Phoenix Coqui and others

Alexis says he wishes he had someone like him to look up to when he started his journey in the business world.

“We’ve never been shy about who we are,” he says. “It’s important because of the generation that’s coming up, having role models that we didn’t have.” 

Juan says that he wants those who discover Phoenix Coqui to see his and Alexis’ journey as proof that being partners in business and life can work.

“[Si] tenga una meta, si está trabajando para complirla,” he says, “que hay nada imposible.” 

In English: “If you have a goal, if you’re working to achieve it, then nothing is impossible.”

Embracing oneself, embracing others, and embracing new opportunities has made Phoenix Coqui and their relationship successful.

“My heart is here, my partner is here, and our business is here,” Alexis says. “Everyone that surrounds us is family.”

That’s what their business is all about.

“It’s two people coming together and doing something that they love, and sharing that with each other and with the community in a non-apologetic way,” he says. 

Phoenix Coqui is looking forward to the holiday season. They took a big step earlier this year and applied for their liquor license. Right before Halloween, they got good news: Their license was approved.

“So we’ll hopefully be able to offer some traditional Puerto Rican drinks here as well, like Coquito!” Alexis says with a grin.

Phoenix Coqui has also applied to be part of the Business Connect program. The program is a diversity initiative that aims to connect eligible local businesses with the NFL and its affiliates while the Super Bowl is in Arizona next year.

“Once you’ve done a major event like that, it opens the door for so many others,” Alexis says.

Phoenix Coqui is now also certified through the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, making Alexis and Juan’s restaurant an approved Lesbian Gay Bisexual Business Enterprise.

“It’s another great way to open doors for corporate partnerships with these companies that like to work with DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion (in mind),” Alexis says.

Lunchtime at Phoenix Coqui is lively and loud with people coming, going and thanking the staff who are busy in and out of the kitchen. Some customers are here to pick up orders. Some sit down to enjoy their meals. 

One table is celebrating a birthday. Alexis gets up from the table he’s sitting at, sharing memories of his and Juan’s life together. He walks over and starts singing to them along with roughly half of the staff: “¡Feliz cumpleaños a tí!” They finish the song with, “¡Feliz cumpleaños, amigo de Alexis!” 

When he sits down again, Alexis explains that they don’t know those customers personally, but everyone that walks through the door is a friend.

The savory smell of arroz con gandules fills the air along with the Puerto Rican music that starts playing every morning, at exactly 11 o’clock. Customers chat, laugh and eat together. The sound of employees mashing and frying different ingredients for dishes like mofongo as they also laugh and call out to each other in Spanish is part of the rhythm at Phoenix Coqui. 

Before Alexis gets up from his seat to help serve customers, he says he wants people to remember Phoenix Coqui as a home. A home for him and Juan, a home for community, and a home for boricua flavor. It’s a place where one Puerto Rican customer moving back to New York couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.

Juan and Alexis made him a special treat, his favorite meal, and something that’s not always on the menu: a plate of pastelitos de guayaba. For Juan and Alexis, this personal goodbye is everything.

“You start to learn, you know what their favorite dishes are and about their families. And we’ve seen couples come together, kids being born,” Alexis says. “So it’s an amazing part of the journey, as well, to share that with our customers.”

The holiday season will be busy. They’ll make Coquito with rum for themselves and for their second family at the restaurant. Then, they’ll start preparing for the crowds coming to town for the Super Bowl in the New Year. 

Maybe, one day soon, they’ll be back on the beach in Puerto Rico. This time, with everyone watching them exchange vows as they begin their lives as a married couple.

Until then, they’ll be on 15th Avenue. Together, cooking and dancing in the little yellow building that’s their second home.

David Rodish contributed to this story (Twitter: @david_rodish)

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Kirsten Dorman is entering her final semester at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University where her focus has been on audio storytelling and reporting...