It would be difficult for almost anyone to imagine leaving everything they know behind and moving their whole family to a different country. When Mexican families immigrate to America, the challenges are many. Language barriers, culture, prejudice to name a few. But they dare to brave the unknown for opportunity, and a better way of life.
Against the odds, many of these immigrants are able to have success as restaurant owners that they could have never imaged before they came here. These owners bring a piece of themselves from the other side of the border and share it with us, which makes dining at an authentic Mexican restaurant a one-of-a-kind experience.
As a Madison, Wisconsin native who has been learning about Spanish-speaking language and culture since second grade, I’ve become fascinated and enchanted by the uniqueness of authentic Mexican restaurants over the years – so much that I decided to move to Mexico City for a year after my quickly approaching college graduation.
Conveniently, I’ve been able to feed this fascination by living above one of my favorites, Los Gemelos, for my senior year of college. While the hours can be unreliable (it’s supposed to be open until 3 a.m. on weekends, and I’ve disappointedly stumbled in late at night as a college student only to find an empty, dark restaurant), its strong fumes that blow out the side and into my apartment stairwell every day keep me coming back. There’s something about the incomparable food, service, and atmosphere that makes me forgive their quirks – like the uncertain hours or the few times they forgot the avocado in my tacos during the dinner rush.
There’s a level of comfort at Los Gemelos, mainly because I see the same two staff members every single time I’m there. Maybe they’re extremely dedicated, or maybe just painfully short staffed, but whether I go at 11 a.m. or midnight, the same guy always takes my order, and I see him inside every time I walk by on my way upstairs. On my way to the elevator inside my apartment building is a door that connects to the kitchen of the restaurant. I can always hear the cooks talking loudly, washing dishes, and making jokes (I love that I speak Spanish at these moments) – those sounds have begun to feel like home.
It was this familiar relationship with Los Gemelos that fostered my curiosity to see if other authentic Mexican restaurants in Madison have a similar charm. I decided to visit two other authentic restaurants and see for myself what makes these types of restaurants stand out. This is by no means a representative sample of all authentic Mexican restaurants in the area, but rather two examples of what I consider authentic experiences.
It was just after 11 am on a Wednesday in April and La Mestiza had recently opened its doors for the day. At first, I was skeptical if they were even still in business, considering the restaurant was barren and there was no one around to greet me. The festive, colorful decorations and all those empty seats gave the impression of a party in which no one bothered to show up. The strong smell of freshly cooked meat and quiet clanking in the kitchen quickly proved otherwise. A few seconds later, a bubbly, Mexican waiter came to greet me and show me to my seat. It wasn’t long before the flocks of businessmen on their lunch break came pouring in and the once-abandoned restaurant transformed into a loud gathering place. Similarly to Los Gemelos, no matter how busy it got, there were only one or two staff members running the show. My peppy waiter singlehandedly tended to every table, his enthusiastic expression never wearing thin.
He was one of the better servers I’ve had, with a genuine interest in getting to know me and making sure I was enjoying myself. On top of that, the tortilla chips were the most unique I’d ever tasted, brought fresh and warm to the table with a thick, crunchy texture. After commenting on this, my waiter lit up and launched into a prideful conversation about how one woman comes in every single morning and makes the chips from scratch. He explained how skilled this woman is in the kitchen, and that she’s an essential, irreplaceable part of their restaurant. After noting his genuine love for La Mestiza, it quickly became clear that each employee puts in 110% effort to run that restaurant.
The quiet, middle-aged owner, Antonio Estrada, personally greeted me and chatted with me at the end of my meal. I was dying to know the secret behind this hidden treasure on Odana Road. When I thought I couldn’t be any more impressed with this place, he told me almost all of his kitchen staff had recently taken off back to Mexico City and that he took on the responsibility himself of making all the food.
Estrada described his vision for his restaurant as more of a concept than just a place to grab food. He said they use a variety of flavors from many different regions throughout Mexico, while most restaurants focus on just one.
“The way it started was with the idea of being original,” Estrada said. “Food nothing compared to what I have seen in Mexican restaurants. What we try to have is an approach of what the Mexican cuisine is in our own interpretation.”
While La Mestiza uses fresh, natural ingredients that Madisonians go crazy for, Estrada had a hard time getting started in the industry. He started the business with a friend that had already been in the United States for a while, but said his friend’s work ethic was much lower than his. It’s clear that Estrada puts everything into his restaurant, but the other partners didn’t have the same commitment. Those frustrations coupled with a lack of experience in the industry created a bumpy road.
“Starting the restaurant was not easy,” Estrada said. “I had to ask for money from friends. The process of running the restaurant was learning the hard way for me. I don’t think I was ready.”
Even though Estrada had a lack of experience running a restaurant, he worked as a busser, a server and a bartender for many years before opening up his own business here. His fascination with food comes from his love for cooking. He was a vegetarian for more than 12 years and used to prepare his own food growing up because he was the only vegetarian in his family. Estrada’s priority with his restaurant is to have good food and good service, which he and his team excel at.
While Estrada and his dedicated team seem like a family, other authentic Mexican restaurants literally are a family affair. Across town from La Mestiza lies Taqueria Guadalajara, another authentic Mexican restaurant. Going to Taqueria Guadalajara during lunch was a much different experience, as the kitchen is open and visible from the moment you walk in with a line of people up against the wall waiting to be sat. While it was loud, busy, fast-paced and small, it was charming in its own way. After quickly browsing the scenery, I noticed all the employees were in constant communication with each other – either giving orders, bickering, or laughing about something. Stepping into the restaurant almost felt as if I’d stepped into their private home. This isn’t so odd considering that’s how the restaurant started – serving delicious, authentic food right from their personal kitchen.
The owner’s daughter, Imelda, filled me in on how this popular spot started up. I speculate she didn’t want to provide her last name in order to protect her family. She said for six years, her mother made and sold food out of her own apartment in Madison. One day, she said, her mom’s friend had a little building for sale and offered for them to take it. Imelda quickly realized her mom had just made a big decision for the whole family and afterwards asked if her and her siblings would help.
“I said I didn’t know if it’s a good idea,” Imelda said. “But we make good food and have a lot of people that know us. So I say yes and a week later, we had our own restaurant. They started working on the menus, pricing…we didn’t know anything about business.”
Regulations are a lot stricter in the United States than in Mexico when it comes to owning a restaurant. Imelda said in Mexico, you can just open your own restaurant without anyone checking up on it. While you can “feed people on the sidewalk” in Mexico, you must have confirmation and a permit for everything you do if you want to open up a restaurant in the States. If something doesn’t get approved, the whole process gets put on hold.
Imelda and her family arrived in the United States in 1999. When they crossed the border, Imelda was 13, her older sister was 17, and her younger brother was two years old. She said none of them knew a single word of English when they crossed and that the journey was incredibly difficult and dangerous.
“Crossing the border is always hard when you don’t have the right permission, the right papers,” Imelda said. “It’s very challenging, very dangerous. It took us a few tries and we did it. We crossed the border. We were all together. We left school, we left our friends, we just came here. We just felt horrible.”
She described it as being “a little fly in a big bowl of soup” (a small fish in a large pond for Americans) when they came to the United States. Her family chose Madison to settle down in because she had an uncle who lived here who could show them the ropes. Imelda said it took a long time to get used to because they felt like they didn’t belong here, but they did their best and eventually got used to the culture. Before her mom bought the restaurant, Imelda went to school and worked for 40 hours a week in a factory to make money.
“I really liked it,” she said. “Having 100, 200 dollars in my pocket.”
Whether Imelda likes working in the family business or not, her mom has grown tired from working hours on end and will soon hand the restaurant over to her and her sister. Luckily, she said she would jump at the chance of having the opportunity to be a co-owner of the business, rather than just a server. The popularity of the business, along with ordering less expensive supplies from Chicago, generates lots of revenue for the restaurant.
Along with Imelda and her sister, the other employees of the restaurant include her stepfather, her brother, two of her cousins, and her nephew. There are only two employees that aren’t part of the family. Imelda said sometimes it’s easier working with family because you trust them and know them very well. On the other hand, she said it can be more difficult because of the high expectations.
“Since it’s your family, you expect them to do more than a regular employee,” she said. “Family doesn’t have a sick day. You have to be here.”
What I learned throughout this short tour of the Mexican restaurants of Madison is the importance of family. Family, whether biological or simply a mindset, is the glue that holds these small, authentic restaurants together. Every time I walk into one of these restaurants, I feel like I’m walking into the kitchen of a welcoming family. Not only do they bring unique recipes with them from Mexico, but these restaurant workers also share their culture with us to learn from and enjoy. I plan on keeping what I’ve learned about their culture in mind when I move to Mexico City next month, and embrace it with open arms. As I enter my apartment for the last few times before leaving, it’s the wafting smells of Los Gemelos that makes me feel at home.