By CARLIE KOLLATH / NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – “Hola, amigos. How many?”
It’s a phrase that, after the customers are seated, is often followed with an offering of hot, crispy tortilla chips and fresh tomato salsa.
The meal then segues into entrees that may include homemade tamales, Mexican-style rice and beans, cheese-covered enchiladas and, in many cases, an ice-cold cerveza or margarita.
Hispanic cuisine at one point might have been considered exotic in Northeast Mississippi, but now it’s more commonplace.
As of last week, Tupelo had at least 14 Hispanic restaurants and taquerias, with at least one more planning to open. Twenty years ago, recalled Jim Beane, president of the Tupelo Restaurant Association, the city had only three or four Mexican restaurants.
Las Margaritas, owned by the Gallardo Corp., is one of the city’s oldest. The original location opened on Industrial Road in 1994 and the second restaurant opened on North Gloster four years ago.
Las Margaritas is among the restaurants whose customers are primarily non-Hispanic people who want something different from their normal fare.
Manager Douglas Ybarra said chips and salsa are by far the most popular item in the restaurant. He goes through about 100 gallons of homemade salsa every week at the Industrial location.
Popular entrees, he said, are grilled chicken with cheese, salads, nachos and fajitas.
“It’s not really like Mexican food 100 percent,” Ybarra said. “It’s like Mexican and American mixed together.”
Because of that, he said about 99 percent of his customers are non-Hispanic.
“You might like cheeseburgers but you don’t want to eat them every day,” he said. “If you eat Mexican food, you’ve got like a thousand dishes you can choose. I see people come in here three, four times a week.”
A touch of home
Speedy Gonzalez, on the other hand, was started as a way to provide Mexican home-cooking to people away from their home countries.
Elquin and Franci Gonzalez, natives of Colombia, opened the taqueria four years ago in a gas station at North Gloster Street and Lakeshire Drive.
“Our goal when we opened the business is not to make a lot of money,” said Elquin Gonzalez, who serves as the Hispanic minister at St. James Catholic Church. “Our goal is to offer a family environment and talk with the people here.”
Part of having the family environment, Gonzalez said, is providing the family food.
“We have some stuff that the Mexican restaurants don’t offer,” he said.
The restaurant serves Mexican specialties such as tortas (Mexican sandwiches), sopes (a thick corn tortilla topped with meat and beans), gorditas, tacos and tamales.
Gonzalez also sells household items, prepackaged food, religious sacramentals and drinks that are imported from Mexico and other Central and South American countries.
The majority of his customers are Hispanic, hailing from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay.
But, he said, the non-Hispanic customer base is growing.
“Most Anglos order tamales,” Gonzalez said, adding that his picture menu is specifically targeted at non-Hispanic customers.
On the other side of town, La Carreta has a menu targeting Hispanic customers. The restaurant, opened two years ago by Pablo and Martha Arellano, is known for its so-called “secret” menu.
“A lot of the Hispanic people know and they ask,” said Angelica Arellano, Pablo and Martha’s daughter who helps run the restaurant. “Other people see (the food) and ask and it’s not on their menu. So other people start asking for the other menu or the secret menu.”
One menu is written in English and Spanish and caters to American tastes. The other “secret” menu is the authentic taqueria menu, she said.
The taqueria menu is written in Spanish and includes delicacies such as tongue and tripe taco with corn tortillas.
“The tortillas are homemade,” Arellano said. “My mom makes them in the morning. You can tell they are homemade. They are all different shapes.”
The most popular item right now, Arellano said, is ceviche, which is tilapia with lime juice and pico de gallo served in a tostada. Quesadillas and fajitas are popular items on the Americanized menu.
“People are starting to try the secret menu,” she said. “I think they’re curious and want to see what the real food is because it’s new to them and they want to try it out.”
More or less?
To satisfy the curiosity even more, the Arellanos opened a second location in Corinth earlier this month. And Ybarra said Las Margaritas is considering a third location in Tupelo.
“There are enough people eating out to support the restaurants,” Ybarra said. “Everybody needs choices where they want to go.”
As more Northeast Mississippians experiment with Mexican food, the restaurant owners and managers are divided about the future of Hispanic restaurants in Tupelo. Some suspect the number will grow as the Hispanic population grows.
Others aren’t so sure.
“The restaurant business is like everything else,” said Francisco Guzman, the assistant manager at D’Casa Mexican Grill. “They come and go. The best will stay.”
Contact Carlie Kollath (662) 678-1598 or firstname.lastname@example.org.