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Holy guacamole! Niches, quality help sustain an abundance of Mexican restaurants

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Juana Naranjo and her husband Raul Aguilar have grown Doña Juana’s Traditional Mexican Food from a small business focused on tamales to a homestyle Mexican restaurant on South Wenatchee Avenue.

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Looking for a south-of-the-border taste? You’ve come to the right place

East Wenatchee

  • Casa Tapatía, 1650 Grant Rd.
  • El Portón, 340 Valley Mall Parkway
  • Tacos Chava, Wenatchee Valley Mall
  • Pablo’s Mexican Grill, 730 Grant Rd.
  • Latino Marketplace, 730 Grant Rd.
  • Rubens III market, bakery, 961 Valley Mall Parkway

Wenatchee

  • La Tortuga Loca, 300 Stevens St.
  • La Fuente, 816 S. Mission St.
  • Taco Loco, 234 S. Wenatchee Ave.
  • El Abuelo, 601 S. Mission St.,
  • Alejandro’s Bakery (next to El Abuelo)
  • Doña Juana’s, 522 S. Wenatchee Ave.
  • El Agave, 800 N. Wenatchee Ave.
  • Carlos 1800, 1450 N. Wenatchee Ave.
  • Ay Caramba, 1516 N. Wenatchee Ave.
  • El Sol, 1917 N. Wenatchee Ave.
  • Tropical Salvadoran, 119 Palouse St.
  • South, inside Pybus Public Market
  • Plaza Wenatchee, 908 S. Wenatchee Ave.
  • Mercado La Esmeralda, 1153 S. Wenatchee Ave.
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Seattle has its coffee shops on every corner. Greater Wenatchee has its Mexican restaurants. Lots of ’em.

This small stretch of the Columbia River has more than 15 Mexican or Latino restaurants, not including nearly a half dozen Mexican markets that also sell food, a generous portion of taco trucks, and fast-food joints galore.

Surrounding cities and communities each have at least one of their own. That all adds up to bushels of chips and gallons of salsa.

How do they all stay in business?

Good food and good customer service,” is the pat answer from all, but is one enchilada combo dinner really all that different from the next?

Customers have their favorite dishes at different restaurants and they make the rounds, says Lucio Zalbalza, manager of East Wenatchee’s Casa Tapatía, a longtime favorite on Grant Road. Hilda and Arnulfo Arceo’s opened the restaurant in 1995.

When I go out to other restaurants, I see customers there that also come here,” he said, as his kitchen and serving crew were getting ready to open. “That’s the reason there are customers enough for everyone. Also, Wenatchee is growing. There will always be business for the ones who have good food.”

We try to always give the best of ourselves, so our customers leave happy,” he said.

They also periodically change the food and drink menus and have recently added photographs of favorite dishes, to keep things interesting.

Plenty of time-honored full-service traditional restaurants, like the Arceos’ often have a a host of specialty standbys and combinations that cater to non-Mexican tastes.

But others, carve out unique niches by focusing their effort and creativity and offerings that are less main stream.

Home cooking

Juana Naranjo and her husband Raul Aguilar founded their Doña Juana’s Traditional Mexican Food on South Wenatchee Avenue on a single, Mexican favorite, tamales. Today, they’ve grown their business and expanded their menu featuring Mexican home cooking. It’s not what many non-Mexicans might expect.

They tell us that this is something original, that it’s more Mexican,” Naranjo said, pointing to photographs on the wall of more than a dozen specialties and describing the unique qualities of each.

Their tiny dining area fills to capacity on weekend, spills into a small waiting area and out, onto the sidewalk.

Now with eight years in business, their repeat customers come from as far away as Canada, they say.

Competition from other restaurants doesn’t frighten them.

We’ll always go to someone who’s started a new business and wish them luck,” Aguilar said. “We offer to help, lend them something they might need. We’re one big neighborhood, and each has its own clientele.”

Advertisements for other restaurants’ specialties also cause an increase in orders for those items at Doña Juana’s, they said, so it’s all good.

Good cooking, lots of long, hard work and treating customers like family has made them successful.

We’re happy to put in the time, because we’re working together,” Aguilar said.

Easy being green

Near the west entrance to the Sen. George Sellar Bridge a splash of bright green and colorful turtle graphics mark the spot of La Tortuga Loca, a 2-year-old restaurant that sells Mexican-style sandwiches, called “tortas.”

Antonio Fonseca, who owns the business with his wife, Ana Laura Martinez, said he wanted to use color to draw customers in and delicious food to keep them coming back.

You have to have faith that you’re doing the best you can and are offering people something different,” he said. “Tortas are very popular in Mexico City, you’ll find a shop like this on every corner. Here in Wenatchee, there aren’t any.”

The young business was put to the test shortly after opening, when Fonseca learned that the state Department of Transportation would change area traffic patterns to speed transit time over the bridge.

Changes resulted in the restaurant’s main entrance being permanently blocked off. Customers had to take a less-than-obvious detour to get there. During construction, large machinery often blocked the entrance. The street was torn up. Business died.

They coped by adding a torta-delivery service. Then, one day, a customer was in such a mood for one of their fresh-made sandwiches, that he left his car a block a way and walked through the construction zone to get to the restaurant.

That’s when I said, we’re staying right here,” Fonseca said. “We’re staying here for him.”

Today, they’re down from seven workers to four, but their customers have found their way back.

Because of faith and hard work, we’re here,” he said.

 

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