NORTH LIBERTY- Mexican restaurants are a stone's throw away in most U.S. cities, but Central American food is much harder to come by.
That's no longer the case for North Liberty residents, who can now dine on fried plantains, yucas, pickled cabbage and more at El Taquito, a new Mexican-Central American fusion restaurant located in Beaver Kreek Centre.
"I know there are already several Mexican restaurants here in town, but we decided to focus on different foods so we wouldn't be so much of a competition," said El Taquito owner Maribel Romero.
Romero opened the restaurant toward the end of January at the former Twinz Bar and Grill location with help from her husband, sister and brother-in-law. It had been a dream of hers for years, and she almost fulfilled it five years ago before investors fell through.
"Back then it was just going to be a fast-food Mexican place," she said. "This time I wanted to make it different."
Customers won't likely notice a difference in the Mexican menu, which includes the typical favorites: fajitas, tacos, enchiladas and queso dip. It's the pupusas, baleadas, pastelitos and other Honduran-inspired dishes on the Central American menu that might surprise the taste buds.
"It's not out of this world; it's just a little different seasoning and stuff," said Romero. She added that Central American food isn't spicy like Mexican food.
Plantains- a less sweet banana treated much like a potato- are used as a substitute for tortillas, and the yuca root makes an appearance in many dishes, as well as a distinct type of Central American sour cream, Romero said.
While mostly Honduran to reflect the expertise of the chef, Romero's husband Jony Perdomo, items on the Central American menu are also popular in El Salvador and Guatemala. Romero stressed how a dish in one Latin American country may mean something completely different in another, so customers shouldn't hesitate to ask questions when ordering.
Take the restaurant's name, for example.
"For Mexicans it's a little taco," said Romero. "For Central American people it's a rolled up tortilla." Both are on the menu, she added.
The restaurant does not currently serve alcohol but arguably makes up for it with traditional drinks like horchata- a mixture of milk, rice and cinnamon- and Mexican hot chocolate. Romero said they might decide to serve alcohol in the future to meet customer demand.
The closest restaurant to the North Liberty area that also strays from serving Mexican-only dishes is Restaurant Izalco in Muscatine, which specializes in Salvadoran food.
Perdomo actually owned his own restaurant in Muscatine back in the '90s. Aside from selling tamales to friends in Iowa City, Alejandra Martinez (Romero's sister) and husband Juan Martinez, who oversee the Mexican menu, don't have any professional restaurant experience. Neither does Romero.
Before opening El Taquito, Romero worked in custodial and laundry departments at the University of Iowa for 16 years. Originally from Juarez, Mexico, she and her sister grew up cooking traditional Mexican dishes for their father. Their Mexican heritage is present not only in the cuisine, but all over the walls, in the form of one-of-a-kind paintings by Romero's uncle, who sent them from Mexico.
Romero said it is a nice piece of home in the restaurant, although she has lived in West Liberty for more than 20 years after graduating from Muscatine High School. She has five children- the eldest in college and the youngest twins of just 17 months. A few of her older kids sometimes help out in the restaurant, along with their cousins.
The commute is hard, Romero said, but she's living her dream.
"The first month was a struggle," said Romero. "We had a lot of ups and downs. I thought maybe this was a bad idea, but now we're more relaxed and organized. It's good now."