CINCINNATI - As we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15), WCPO contributor Grace Yek visits three locally owned eateries with uniquely Latin American stories.
Taqueria Maya: 9996 Kings Auto Mall Road, Cincinnati
This stew is as perfect as it gets: Sautéed onion and garlic, smoky yet bright guajillo peppers, held down by white hominy and pork and patiently simmered in oregano-spiced stock to create the taste that is pozole. It is no wonder Alex Mejia, the owner of Taqeuria Maya, claims pozole as his favorite food.
Taqueria Maya, quietly tucked away off Fields Ertel Road, cooks up food that speaks to its Maya Mexican heritage. The incredible aroma that hits you when you walk into the restaurant is enough to make your mouth do cartwheels.
Mejia, a Chicago native, moved to the Tri-state in 2000 and started Taqeuria Maya in 2006.
"We prepare our food from fresh ingredients, nothing from a can," he said.
The house guacamole is made fresh a la minute, and never sits around. The mole poblano is made fresh daily.
"Our food is simple, flavorful and authentic," said Mejia.
The restaurateur credits his mother and grandmother for their impact on his culinary vision.
"They taught me how you feel about the food ultimately shows in the food. If you prepare your food with love, it will be good. Be careful with what you're doing," Mejia said.
Dishes like pozole, menudo (beef tripe soup) and birria de chivo (goat stew) are just the way Mejia's grandmother made them. As Mejia talked to a guest, a huge pan of freshly pulled carnitas waited patiently for the finishing touches. A mouthwatering pot of menudo simmered, coaxing the tripe to soften.
Mejia observed that a good number of his customers don't take him up on the more authentic dishes, but instead, stay with the tacos and burritos menu.
The Taqueria Maya team knows good food, and was visibly busy, readying for dinner service. The care they showed for the food and for each other was evident. Far from the rigid brigade system, the team worked more like a family. Light-hearted conversation frequently accompanied busy hands.
When asked what the biggest misconception is with his customers, Mejia replied: "They think this is a Taco Bell. Our quality of food and price point are totally different."
Texas Joe the Legal Mexican Food Truck
Born and raised in Houston, Joseph Garcia moved to Northern Kentucky eight years ago, only to be mistaken for a gardener by his new neighbors.
Having a healthy sense of humor, as Garcia does, it was only fitting when it came time to name his food truck, the name he chose would punctuate his American life as a third generation Mexican-American.
Thus, Texas Joe the Legal Mexican food truck was born. Realizing the potential for controversy, Garcia said he did not choose the name to be flippant, but to poke fun at his own story.
With the exception of the tortillas, Garcia said he prepares all of the items on his Legal Menu from scratch. He offers quesadillas, tacos and tostados with a variety of meat: including chipotle pulled chicken, braised beef brisket and 12-hour hickory smoked pork.
He recalled the ritual of smoking pork shoulder with his father and uncles.
"It reminds me of my family. Just as I think about my mother and aunts when making tamales," Garcia said.
The food truck cook learned his trade from his mother.
"You had to pay close attention because you learned by watching and doing," Garcia recalled. Cooking skills were handed down through oral traditions in his family. There were no recipes.
While his Legal Menu offers Tex-Mex specialties that appeal to mainstream palates, you can still find definite touches of Mexico through his use of agave nectar and cotija cheese. Garcia believes in supporting the local economy and buys locally grown produce at the farmers markets he himself participates in.
Garcia's own taste is as American as it comes. He divulged that his favorite comfort food is a good burger. As if to highlight the diversity and complexity of the contemporary Latino, his second most favorite food is, well, the tamale.
You can find Garcia and his food truck at the Party Source every Wednesday from 3:00 – 7:00 p.m., and at the Covington farmers' market every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Next page: The flavor of Peru
Sabor Peruano: 7105 Dixie Highway, Fairfield
Victor Choque, the owner of Sabor Peruano, speaks with a calm not often found in the high-adrenalin world of restaurants. Choque, who moved to the Tri-State from New York, started the restaurant ten years ago because he sorely missed the food of his native Peru. Today, Sabor Peruano serves up some of the most distinctive food in the Tri-state.
Choque hails from the Land of the Incas, a pride that visibly swells when he speaks about the food of Peru. He quietly observed that the occasional misguided customer thinks they can get tacos and burritos at Sabor Peruano.
"Mexican and Peruvian cuisines are very different. We eat a lot of rice instead of tortillas," Choque explained.
Rice dishes are green and red--even fried--thanks to the Chinese immigrant influence in Peru.
"We use chilies like rocoto and aji panca, very different from those used in Mexican cooking," he added.
The rocoto chili is a staple in Peruvian cuisine, and it looks like a mini-bell pepper. However, the heat level will make you sit up and take notice.
Parihuela, a traditional seafood soup with an impressive makeup that includes fish, squid, shrimp, octopus, mussels, clams and crab, graces the seafood section of the menu. Think of it as Peruvian bouillabaisse, complete with its retinue of chilies, herbs and spices.
Arroz con mariscos, a Peruvian staple, showcases a medley of seafood on a bed of red rice. You would not be mistaken if you think you see hints of paella in this dish. Ceviche, a cold dish of raw seafood dancing in tart lime juice, fragrant cilantro and slices of red onion, is another staple on the menu.
As if to contrast these complex flavors, Choque pointed to choclo con queso (corn with cheese) on the menu.
"It is simple food you would readily find on the streets of Peru," he explained.
Peruvian food is a fascinating study in fusion cuisine. Nineteenth century immigrants from China brought their culinary traditions, which included the use of soy sauce, ginger and the stir-fry cooking method. The melding of ingredients and techniques is evident in foods like lomo saltado, where strips of beef, sometimes seasoned with soy sauce, are stir-fried with onion and peppers, and served with potato and steamed rice.