Nearly one out of five residents of Crawford County, Iowa, hail from Latin America. The new residents have done a world of good for the area's cuisine.
DENISON, Iowa —Antonio Oropeza, a Mexican immigrant living in the west-central Iowa city of Denison, doesn’t have his grandmother Angelina anymore. She has passed. But the Orepeza family treasures heirlooms she left: her salsa and this abuela’s (grandmother’s) culinary influence on their delightful little restaurant, El Charro (Big Hat) just south of U.S. 30 in the middle of the main strip in the Crawford County seat.
It’s a humble place with a giant taste. El Charro has a steady stream of customers, a mix of Anglos and Hispanics, who pop in not only at lunch and dinner time but throughout the day for an assortment of homemade dishes — from generous nacho plates to the hand-rolled tortillas that make the foundation for the guaracha, a sandal-shaped specialty topped with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato and avocado and your choice of meat. (A special note: the chorizo, or Mexican sausage, is a must-try).
Oropeza says customers often ask for the salsa recipe. His ready answer for the salsa suitors: “I cannot give it to you because that is a family recipe.”
There’s an endearing family story behind the naming of the eatery after the cowboy hat. “In Mexico my whole family liked cowboys,” Oropeza said.
El Charro is just one (albeit perhaps the best) of a growing number of authentic ethnic restaurants opening in western Iowa as this part of the state’s Latino population increases. Attracted initially to meat-packing jobs, the Latino community now is a major force on Main Street with a variety of small businesses, including several restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores catering to the native tastes of families with roots in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin nations.
In 2007, the population of Crawford County of about 17,000 stood at 19 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census. This means opportunity for restaurateurs, some of whom have the crossover appeal of the country music star with an ear for alternative rock. Other businesses, often those with owners who struggle more with English, remain homes-away-from-native-soil for Latinos.
One of the restaurants with strong Anglo-Latino draw is the El Jimador (the workers who harvest the tequila plant). Jimador is located at 19 S. Main St., a stone’s throw from a theater named after the town’s most famous native, “It’s A Wonderful Life” actress and 1950s icon, the late Donna Reed.
Owner Gerald Leon, whose English is far and away the best of the restaurateurs this slightly bilingual reporter interviewed for the story, boosts a clientele that is 70 percent white. The atmosphere is neat and family friendly with an inviting balcony seating area ringing the restaurant. Definitely request a table in that section as it affords both privacy and a pleasant ambience. I’ve tried several dishes there, but find myself coming back to the chimichangas and their fluffy texture and rich taste. They are the best chimis I’ve ever had.
Leon hails from Mexican state of Jalisco, located to the northwest of Mexico City. His cousin, Jose Santillan Leon, is the owner of the popular La Fuente in Ames.
Bernardo and Maria Moran came to Denison eight years ago. Today, they run La Central Bakery, 315 S. Seventh St., northwest of the Pronto gas station. Most of La Central’s customers for the cookies and biscuits and other baked goods are from Mexico or Central America. That might change, however, if more Anglo Iowans sample a La Central special: the churro, a cinnamon-vanilla pastry that sells for $1. Word to the wise: grab a dozen while you’re there. You seem to have a better chance of finding the coveted churros on the weekends, Maria told me.
One thing you’ll find with Mexican bakeries is that they don’t cook with as much butter, Maria Moran says. What’s good for the palate doesn’t have as much payback in the midsection that way.
Not too far from the bakery you’ll find El Paisano (compatriots), 525 Highway 39 north, in the strip mall that contains the No Frills outlet. The service style and simple atmosphere leave one feeling as if you’re eating in the home of owners Martin and Susanna Valezquez, whose family roots in the Yucatan area of Mexico show up (thankfully) in their dishes.
Many of the Anglo customers opt for the super burrito or super quesadilla. For a more authentic meal, order the carne azada (grilled steak) with plantains, a wild plant that is similar to a banana but with a softer sweetness. Grilled and served with a steak, plantains are the perfect compliment.
Once you’ve tried all these restaurants in little Denison, go back to the beginning and start over.