While researching the local restaurants and bars offering music in Melaque and Barra, I had a conversation with Dr. Roberto Pimienta Woo, owner of Viva Maria 1910 in Melaque.
Meeting with Dr. Woo on a lazy Tuesday afternoon, our conversation drifted to his early days, his family, his studies, his passion to help those less fortunate and his love of music and food.
Raised in Guadalajara by a father who had a small loncheria selling sandwiches and juice across from El Informador newspaper and a mother who ran a rooming house for university students, Woo, one of seven siblings, described his family as “very poor.”
A musician in his high school days, playing guitar in a Latin band, he was a stellar student and, based on his marks, was accepted into the school of medicine at the University of Guadalajara. Unable to afford money for textbooks, Woo would study in the library until 8 p.m. when it closed. After a time, he befriended one of the librarians who allowed him to take books home at night and return them by morning.
Eager to be the best he could be, Woo began studying texts from U.S. medical schools. His knowledge began to surpass what was taught in Guadalajara and for the first and only time, he failed an exam. Woo was clearly ahead of his time.
Graduating 13th out of 400 students, most would boast of their academic accomplishments, but Woo seems most proud of the fact that he and several peers put an end to the cruel initiations that were common in medical school at that time. Too many students were seriously injured and Woo found nothing funny about it.
After six years of university, graduate students were required to donate a year of social service in medical clinics and hospitals of their choice. Many of Woo’s peers stayed in the big city hospitals but he chose to go where his services were most needed, taking on the position of “pasante,” or intern, in a small Melaque clinic.
With no money for a bus, Woo hitchhiked to Melaque. This thin, long-haired young man, arrived 12 hours later, dusty, dirty, hungry and tired. The director was not in at the time so the clinic’s nurse showed him around. Before the tour was completed, a man arrived with a young woman in the throes of labor. The clinic’s nurse insisted that this husband take his wife to Manzanillo as the regular doctor wasn’t in. Having worked extensively in obstetrics while in medical school, Woo offered to examine the patient. His six-person team in Guadalajara had delivered as many as 50 babies in a 24-hour period. With great hesitation, the nurse conceded and Woo successfully delivered his first baby in Melaque. A grateful new father spread the word and it wasn’t long before the clinic was lined up with patients waiting to see the new “hippie doctor.” Woo was beginning his transition to life in a quiet town. Earning a meager 300 pesos per month, clinic doctors were not allowed to accept additional funds or gifts of any kind. For the next year he fulfilled his obligation, often surviving on a single meal per day.
Things improved with the opening of his medical practice. He allowed himself a minor indulgence, enjoying a delicious meal at a tiny restaurant on Melaque’s beach. This restaurant had a very accomplished Italian chef. Although the food was exceptional, locals were not familiar with its offerings and the restaurant was not doing well. The chef and owner convinced Dr. Woo that he should purchase the business. So it came to be that another passion was realized. He purchased the restaurant. Porque no?, as they say in Spanish. Not convinced that he had the necessary knowledge, Woo went to New York City to take some crash courses in the restaurant/bar business. He decided that “good food, good service, good ambiance and good music” were the keys to success and he put all of these things into practice. Music was rare in Mexican restaurants in the 1980s.
Balancing his medical practice and the restaurant, Woo met and married a girl from Ottawa, Canada. Their two children, Arianna and Christopher, were born in Ottawa and schooled in both Canada and Melaque. Woo hoped to obtain his degree in allopathic medicine in Canada but his credentials were not accepted. So began a 15-year stint of six months in the north and six months in Melaque.
After an amicable separation from his wife, Woo closed the Viva Maria restaurant, but a few years later opened the new Viva Maria 1910 Restaurant two doors north of the original. It is a still vibrant and popular destination for locals and visitors alike. Renowned for its food and entertainment, Viva Maria is the go-to destination for celebrations, fundraising, dancing and dining. Woo is committed to the community and has reputation for his strong support of local schools, single moms and the physically impaired. A recent fundraising event took in 40,000 pesos! Initially a “Street Party,” the event was moved to Viva Maria to save costs on chair and table rentals, sound systems, etcetera. Viva Maria can accommodate up to 400 guests. A very popular “Open Mic” takes place on Wednesday afternoons at 2 p.m. There is entertainment most days of the week.
Dr. Woo is a physician, an entrepreneur, a social advocate and a passionate supporter of his fellow man. Although his family was poor, they instilled incredible values in each of their seven children who have all moved on to successful careers. Woo’s brothers Eduardo Arturo and Luis Antonio are both practicing dentists in Melaque; his sister Gloria became a beauty specialist with Marlboro in Sacramento, California; Rosa, in Tepic, retired as a math specialist from the University of Nayarit and Angela, a social worker in Guanajuato, has retired and teaches aerobics.
Woo is still practicing medicine at his clinic in Melaque, primarily in the mornings. He can usually be found at his restaurant in the afternoon. Although he has no imminent plans to retire, he does admit that he is taking a bit more time for himself. Of the 400 students in his graduating class, only 120 remain. A number of those are in ill health. He is conscious of the toll it can take and is cautious to find a life/work balance.
You can reach Dr. Woo directly at (315) 107-1973 or (315) 100-1865 to book an appointment at the clinic, or to make a reservation at Viva Maria 1910.