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Café to Café


Grandma's Kitchen/La Cocina de la Abuela

A culinary tour through Mexico

Grandma's Kitchen has several firsts in its history: first Mexican restaurant to introduce cactus in Walla Walla, the first Mexican food booth at the Walla Walla farmers market (2007), and the second Mexican restaurant in downtown (La Hacienda was first on this one). They have a small menu, but there's a lot of "love and passion in our meals," says Manuel Perez, owner and son of Abuela Josefina. They offer 7-8 items, plus a special each day.

At 86 years of age, Josefina still picks out all the fresh vegetables they use; you won't find cans in the kitchen. "This is part of the reason we are successful," says Manuel. "Our food is fresh, and my mom keeps a close eye on things. She's the cook. If I make something, she might taste it and say, 'I'll fix it, it's not right.' She loves what she does and is very dedicated. It's hard to make her take a day off. Sometimes I have to make her mad, so she'll say, 'I'm not going to help you anymore!' Then she'll finally go home." At home, Manuel cooks on special occasions. "I love it, I like being creative and challenging myself." At the restaurant, he preps and does some cooking.

Their food comes from various parts of Mexico. A Yucatán specialty, their pork soaks in a citrus sauce for six hours, then is cooked slowing in adobo sauce for eight hours. It is served with onion, lettuce, cilantro, pickled onion, and lime to squeeze over. Their corn salad is from Morelos and is a refreshing mix of beans, corn, avocado, lettuce, cotija cheese. It's often found at Sunday farmers markets. "Some of the recipes have been in our family for generations, like the mango pudding. It's a traditional Spanish recipe that nuns who came to Mexico made. We've had three nuns and a priest in our family, and somehow got that recipe over three generations ago.

"We moved to Walla Walla in 2007. After a while, I could tell my mom had too much time on her hands and was getting bored. She also sews, and I suggested she sell her crafts at the farmers market. She said, 'no, I want to sell sopes.' We got invited to have a booth, so we went down to check it out and there were no other Mexican vendors; that's how we got to be the first in July 2007, and we've now been in business for 10 years. We had a tiny little booth and sold flautas, sopes, tacos and a few other things. Customers started asking about burritos which are not traditional to central or southern Mexico. But they are Mexican, so I took a year to develop recipes for breakfast, cactus, and chorizo burritos. We started selling them at 9 a.m. and they'd be gone by 10 a.m. Word started to spread, and we worked every weekend, Fridays at the Richland farmers market, and Saturday-Sunday in Walla Walla. Then people started asking us to be at events, like the Waitsburg Car Show which we did for five or six years. That led to catering private parties.

"About seven years ago, the owner of the building we're in asked if we were looking for a restaurant location. We said yes, but they're hard to find and expensive. He had his space rented out, but two years later he asked if we were still looking. Yes! At first, we used plastic plates and utensils and had folding chairs and tables. We upgraded over time, and just bought two grills and a refrigerator this year. Our customers are loyal and patient!"

Josefina always cooked for family and friends at home in Mexico City. The unthinkable happened in the 1985 earthquake: her husband and a young son were killed when their home collapsed. Manuel was 15 and at school at the time. "We lost everything and were living on the street. My mother and other ladies gathered all the rice and beans they could find and cooked for everyone. One of my aunts lived on the other side of Mexico City and owned a business. We went there, and mom cooked on the street.

Manuel's background started in high school when he worked at the Mexico City airport, in charge of a cart selling sandwiches, donuts, and coffee. The company that owned the carts also had restaurants and he worked at their gourmet Mexican restaurant San Jeronimo for two years. He moved to California and studied at both San Bernardino and Fresno City colleges, getting his EMT license and attending X-ray and RN programs. Joining the US Navy, he was deployed in 2003 and headed to the Persian Gulf for nine months. The Navy trained him on more things medical, and he got a letter of commendation after his time at the Kuwait Naval Base. "I really enjoyed my time in the Navy; you bond with the people you're with. People have asked me why I'd do this for a country that isn't mine. But we came here for a better life, and you have to work for those freedoms." Manuel's job at the Fresno Medical Center was held for him and he returned to work there. He asked Josefina to move in with him, but she wanted the family to reunite, so they joined them in Walla Walla in 2007. "I will do anything to please her; I was happy to do it. I miss the California weather, but that's about it. Walla Walla is our second home."

Manuel and Josefina want guests to travel with them to Mexico through the dishes they prepare. "Mexico has different cuisines from different areas; all are fresh and delicious."

La Cocina de la Abuela/Grandma's Kitchen
36 S Colville Street
Walla Walla, WA 99362

March 2018

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