In the back of his shop in Carrboro, Miguel Valdez feeds masa into a huge machine, which rattles and clanks as it turns out fresh tortillas. The tortilla machine sits at the back of the small dining room, which is off to the side of the main part of the store. The store, Don Jose, is one of many like it--a tienda, the Mexican version of the corner store, but this ones doubles as a restaurant, and fresh tortillas are the newest addition to the offerings here. The menu, handwritten in marker on cardboard above the counter, is short and indecipherable to a non-Spanish speaker. But Gloria, Miguel's wife, speaks enough English to translate, and it is well worth the small discomfort of being slightly out of place to get the food.
All over the Triangle, places like Don Jose have been popping up, tiendas and restaurants with Mexican flags and Spanish dishes advertised in the windows. The exploding Latino community in the Triangle has created a market for authentic Latino food, a demand in fact, and tame Mexican-American enchiladas and quesadillas won't do. There is nothing tame about this food--the sauces are spicy, the meats are meaty (tongue tacos, anyone?), and in most cases, it is some of the cheapest and best food around.
Gloria and Miguel fell into the restaurant business by accident, but it has become almost a calling. They had been living in San Antonio, Texas, in what Gloria calls "a Latino barrio," where they were so scared of being robbed that they couldn't leave the house. Gloria's brother, who had been living with them in San Antonio while he was in high school, left seeking adventure. He landed in North Carolina and convinced Gloria and Miguel that they might find a better life here.
When they arrived, Gloria found work at a BP station on Mt. Carmel Church Road where she worked for seven years. She enjoyed the work, and eventually she and Miguel saved enough to start their own business. At first they were just a Mexican convenience store, but the space they moved into on Rosemary Street in Carrboro had been a restaurant and had a large kitchen. They decided to give the food side of things a try.
"At first it was hard," Gloria says. "A restaurant is very different from a convenience store. We were so busy!"
And they are still busy. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the crowd at the counter was five heads deep. Many were there to send money back to Mexico, a service that Don Jose also provides. But most were there for the food.
It's easy to see why. At Don Jose, they make their own masa, a coarse corn dough used to make a variety of dishes, mainly topped with beans, cheese and meats. The difference between this masa and a frozen or packaged corn tortilla is like the difference between fresh summer corn and corn from a can. They make a variety of salsas, laid out on the self-serve salsa bar in varying degrees of very spicy. They make their own bread for the tortas, huge sandwiches filled with meat, cheese, beans and peppers. And they make over 20 different kinds of pastries and doughnuts, the quality of which is a little astounding.
Other Mexican specialties include elute--corn on the cob smothered in mayonnaise and then rolled in queso fresco (fresh cheese), served with a lime on the side to squeeze over the whole thing. This is one of the most satisfying snacks ever. And of course tacos, now made with fresh tortillas.
The tortilla machine was no small investment. Miguel and Gloria spent $40,000 on the machine, an amount that it will take a lot of tortillas to make their money back on. At first, they decided against the expense. Then one day a woman came in with her young son. They had just arrived from Mexico, and the boy who, was five or six, was having a rough time with the transition.
"He wasn't eating," Gloria says. "He wouldn't eat anything, not at a restaurant, not at his house. His mother was very worried about him. I decided then that we should get the machine."
Gloria recognized that the taste of home, the true taste of home, is a very powerful thing. To make her customers feel at home, she says it is worth the expense of the machine and the longer, harder hours it takes to prepare and serve food.
The North Carolina Latino community is the fastest growing of any state in the country. From 1990-2000, North Carolina's Latino population grew by almost 400 percent, an estimated 530,328 people. In 2002, the buying power of that community was nearly $9 billion. By 2007, that's projected to increase to $23 billion. At the epicenter of this amazing growth are Durham and Wake counties, which have two of the fastest growing populations by county in the United States. Because of this huge influx in new immigrants and their money, especially in such high concentrations, North Carolina is gaining an array of untouched cuisines. There are very few other places in the country where there is such a variety and abundance of authentic, non-Americanized Mexican and Latino restaurants. They tend to locate in older strip shopping centers and on busy commercial boulevards, in areas where housing is less expensive--and their customers are likely to live. El Pueblo in Raleigh, one of the state's largest Latino advocacy groups, helps teach health and business regulations to prospective vendors at Fiesta del Pueblo, their big October festival at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, but no one is really keeping track of how many native restaurants there are. All you need to enjoy them is a good appetite and a little patience (in case your server or the person at the counter doesn't speak much English). But one thing is certain: From a food lover's point of view, we are sitting on a goldmine, yet it's one that is largely unexplored.
One clue to the reason much of this food remains mostly unknown to non-Latinos can be found in the differences between the Spanish and English menus at La Fondita, a restaurant next to Big Lots in a shopping center near the corner of Avondale and Roxboro roads in Durham. On the Spanish menu under each dish, five or six meat choices are listed, including two different types of pork, an amazing spicy sausage, as well as tripe and tongue. On the English menu, the choices are beef and chicken. My ego told me that this was a case of the establishment underestimating me, deciding for me that because I don't read Spanish I was a stupid Gringo who wasn't cool enough to eat anything but sanitized, American food. But Elizabeth Hidalgo-Molina, the owner's teenaged daughter, told me differently.
"The menus used to be the same," she said. "But I noticed a lot of Americans who would come in would look at the menu and leave. All those strange meats scared them. So I suggested to my mom that we just put chicken and beef, and since then I haven't seen one person leave."
They don't know what they're missing. A recent special I ordered from the Spanish menu at La Fondita was perhaps a little spicy for the average American palette, but only if your spice sensibilities come from the "spicy" sandwiches they serve at Burger King. The dish, shrimp in chipotle sauce with bacon, served with beans and rice, was as good as any lunch I have ever had anywhere. This is not an anomaly. Just up the street on the corner of Club and Roxboro is Taqueria LaPoblana, which looks like little more than a hut, but serves tamales on the weekends that are out of this world. At Taqueria mi Pueblo in The Village shopping center on Miami Boulevard, you can get a huge bowl of posole, a rich pork and hominy stew that seems to be the ultimate cure for your ills, whether you're suffering from a hangover, a cold or homesickness.
Like Don Jose, the owners of La Fondita see their main mission as offering a place where people can feel at home. "Our customers are working people," says Elizabeth Hidalgo-Molina, half translating for her mother Elena Molina, half speaking for herself. "They are people who have been working hard jobs all day; we want them to feel comfortable when they come in here. They come in with mud on their boots. They know we won't mind."
Elena Molina was one of those working people when she first came to the Triangle, and she knows the importance of a home-cooked meal and a place that feels like home. For years she cleaned houses and washed dishes after she arrived 12 years ago from Mexico City to show her daughter a better life. Now, Elizabeth is a student and works at La Fondita when school lets out.
The restaurant was started by Elena's father about seven years ago, making it one of the first restaurants in the area to serve authentic Mexican food. "They had people waiting outside for a table back then," Elizabeth says. "We didn't have time to clean off the table before someone else was sitting in it." Now, there is a lot more competition, but La Fondita was one of the first places to prove that the demand and the customers were there.
When I asked them what they thought the main difference was between the food they served and the food at Mexican restaurants aimed more at American customers, Elizabeth and Elena conferred in Spanish, and then Elizabeth said, "We've noticed that at a lot of those places the food is too sweet, and they use too much tomato. Our customers want food that is spicy, not sweet." Like Gloria Mendez at Don Jose, Elena Molina had no formal cooking experience before taking on the job of running a restaurant. She is simply cooking recipes she knows from growing up in Mexico, things she learned from her own mother. In other words, this is home cooking at its most honest.
In Raleigh, at the intersection of Capital Boulevard and I-540, there's Ashton International Shopping Center, a goldmine for Latino cuisine seekers. Next to the Burlington Coat Factory is El Mandado, an old supermarket transformed into a Latino supermarket and more: the store also houses a laundromat, game room, barber shop and food court, as well as a department store-style clothing section (the place to go if you want cowboy boots for your toddler). The food court serves very cheap tacos, tortas and entrees. The meat section of the supermarket is great for hard-to-find meats like tripe and tongue. In the same shopping center is Balcazar Bakery, a Latino-owned bakery that sells specialty pastries, sweets and cakes.
A few doors up from that is Mar-Y-Sol, a Salvadoran restaurant that serves fantastic food at great prices. There are similarities between Mexican food and Salvadorian food, and some of the dishes here are familiar (enchiladas), but there are also some dishes with a distinctly Salvadoran flair. The pupusas, at $1.50 each, are an amazing deal, the ultimate snack food; a cheese and pork paste flavored with green peppers and loroco (a nutty tasting flower, common in El Salvador), encased in homemade masa, grilled on a griddle like a thick pancake. Imagine a delicious corn pancake filled with a cheese and bacon, with a hint of smoke. The pupusas are served with a course and spicy slaw and hot sauce. Also a great deal at $13.95 (and the most expensive item on the menu) is the mariscada, a seafood stew made with coconut milk. The dish takes 20 minutes to prepare, but it's well worth the wait. The fragrant broth is filled with shrimp, mussels, squid and half a lobster tail, and comes with a side of homemade tortillas, which are thicker than the Mexican version. At Mar-Y-Sol they also make their own masa from scratch. At three in the afternoon on a rainy Monday, with Spanish language music videos playing on the TV and Maria Garcia, one of the owners, speaking warmly to her customers, Mar-Y-Sol is busy. With food this good, it is easy to see why.
As the Latino population continues to grow, restaurants like these will continue to spring up. Speaking in culinary terms, it's a level of ethnicity that we haven't really experienced before--we have no little Italy here, no real Chinatown. But the tiendas, the taquerias, the lancheros (the trailers that are all over Durham and Raleigh near construction sites and behind tiendas), and the restaurants are something that much bigger cities don't have. Even the great San Francisco burrito doesn't hold a candle to the Carrboro torta. We are being given the opportunity to step into another culture through their cuisine, and it's an intensely enjoyable journey.
Heres a glossary of some of the dishes you may find on the menus in native Latino restaurants, and their English translations
Aguas frescas: Drink made with water, infused with fruit or other flavoring
Albondiga or albondigas: Meatball
Al Pastor: Meat (any type) cooked over a spit Middle Eastern-style
Ancho: Dried poblano chile
Asada: Roasted (for example, carne asada is meat cooked over hot coals)
Bolillos: Large soft rolls, used to make tortas
Carnitas: Braised, tender pork
Ceviche: Raw fish marinated in lime juice and mixed with tomatoes, onions, chiles and spices
Chicharrones: Deep fried pork rinds
Chiles rellenos: Ancho or Anaheim chiles with skins removed, dipped in batter, stuffed with cheese or meat and covered with lightly spiced red sauce
Chilorio: A meat filling from northern Mexico made with boiled, shredded pork that's fried with ground chiles and spices
Chipotle: Dried, smoked jalapeno chile
Elote: Fresh corn, often served rolled in mayonnaise, cheese, and served with lime
Empanadas: Pastry turnover filled with spicy meat or fruit and sweets
Horchata: Milky drink made from rice, often flavored with spices or nuts
Longaniza: A sausage flavored with chiles and other spices
Masa: Dough of ground corn meal, lime and water used to make corn tortilla
Menudo: Robust, medium spicy soup with tripe, hominy, onions and spices
Milanesa: A breaded, fried cutlet of meat, usually pork
Mojo de ajo: Cooked in garlic sauce
Mole: Complex dark sauce with chiles, nuts, spices, fruits, vegetables, chocolate and seasonings
Pozole: Robust, medium spicy soup with pork or chicken, hominy, onions and spices. Also called posole
Queso fresco: Literally fresh cheese. A fresh soft cheese, often homemade
Refrescos: Soft Drinks
Ropa Vieja: Stew made with shredded meat
Sopes: Also known as gorditas, sopes are made with masa, which is patted into circles of 2-3 inches then cooked on a comal and sometimes deep fried, as well. The fillings, often beans and shredded meat and cheese, are placed on top. Some sopes are made like a little bowl so you can pick the whole thing up, others are not and need to be eaten with a fork
Tamale or Tamales: Corn tortilla dough filled with meat, vegetables or fruit, wrapped up in a corn husk and steamed
Torta: Sandwich, usually made with a bolillo. Most tortas you get around here are filled with meat, cheese, beans and peppers
Latino restaurant sampler
Ready to embrace some real flavors? Heres a sampling of some of the down-home Latino restaurants in the Triangle. But there are lots more. Send us your favorites at firstname.lastname@example.org and well add them to our online listings.
4000 Atlantic Ave., Suite 168, 954-1932
Mexican and Central American specialties
El Mandado Supermarket
4020-108 Capitol Blvd., Ashton Square, 878-1800
Huge Latino supermarket that contains a food court that serves cheap Mexican fast food.
4020-108 Capitol Blvd., Ashton Square, 431-0505
Lunch and dinner: Daily
Salvadoran restaurant, very authentic. Try the pupusas and the mariscada seafood stew.
Taqueria Mi Mexico
805 W. Peace St., 821-7642
3177 Capital Blvd.
Brand new authentic Mexican
Also check out:
The taco truck behind La Guerrerense Tienda at 1514 S. Saunders St. Opens at 5 p.m. unless it's raining.
El Cuscatleco 4212 Garrett Road, 401-5245
Authentic Salvadoran cuisine
2000 Avondale Drive, 220-7282
One of the area's oldest Latino-owned restaurants, serving authentic Mexican cuisine. Great specials, tortas and desserts.
La Villita Restaurant
2501-C University Drive at the Chapel Hill Boulevard split, 401-4967
Serving hard-to-find Mexican dishes such as lamb stew (borrego), molcajeta and sopa de siete mares, a seafood stew.
Mi Pequeno Honduras
2201 N. Roxboro Road, 220-3702
Honduran restaurant, authentic Central American specialties.
2000 Chapel Hill Road (in the Shoppes at Lakewood shopping center), 403-0434
Authentic Mexican cuisine. Free delivery.
Taqueria La Superior
2842 N. Roxboro Road, 220-9884
Two large salsa and condiment bars, giant tortas and terrific weekend specials like birria de chivo (goat stew).
Taqueria Mi Pueblo
1000 Holloway St. (in The Village shopping center), 688-3461
Fantastic weekend specials like posole and other stews. Extensive salsa bar with smoked jalapenos and super spicy avocado cream. Great aguas frescas. Closed Tuesdays.
708 Rosemary St., 969-8568
Tienda serving Mexican lunch specialties including tacos, tortas and sopes. Homemade masa, tortillas, breads and pastries.
El Mercado Central
109 W. Main St., 929-4999
Taqueria serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.