CROOKSTON-It's 11:30 a.m. on a weekday and a petite Julia Mejia stands near the front door of El Gordito Market in downtown Crookston.
White apron on, she tidies the tables and greets customers with a broad smile and a chipper "Hola!"
Mejia is chief cook, clerk and manager of the small specialty market and restaurant at 214 N. Broadway. She has worked with her son and owner of the market, Orlando Carpano, for about seven years-starting out selling just Mexican candy a nickel or quarter at a time at a storefront down the street. Now the business is open six days a week, serving homemade Mexican and Salvadoran dishes only a mom from El Salvador can make.
"I do everything by hand," Mejia says. "The beans, the rice, tomatoes, onions-no cans. Everything is fresh. I make it with love because I want the people to be happy."
It's clear customer service is the No. 1 priority at El Gordito. Mejia shuffles in and out of the neat, small kitchen, taking orders and delivering steaming-hot plates of burritos, tostadas and enchiladas. She's quick, but she still takes time to visit with each customer-speaking back and forth in both Spanish and English.
Guests Sarai and Asaf Ramos say it's that friendly atmosphere and one-of-a-kind authentic food that keeps them coming back.
"She always makes you feel at home and like she's known you for a long time," Sarai says. "You are not a stranger here, and the food is really good. You can tell the difference between home-cooked beans cooked on the stove and beans from the can."
This day the couple have stopped in for lunch with their 18-month-old daughter, who is a fan of the pupusas-a traditional Salvadoran dish made of a thick handmade tortilla that can be filled with a mix of pork, beans and cheese. The dish is served with a side of Southern-style cabbage slaw and, of course, your choice of special sauce in mild, medium or hot.
The Ramoses, who recently came to Crookston as missionaries for Light of the World Church, quickly became friends with Mejia and recently helped her design the restaurant's colorful new menu, which includes pictures of every dish.
For first-timers, the pictures are especially helpful because most of the dishes share a name only with traditional Mexican fare. Here, a tamale isn't just a tamale.
Mejia's sister, Marie Menjival, a partner in the kitchen for three years, is the tamale expert. She can turn out 150 hand-wrapped tamales in just six hours.
At El Gordito, they make both traditional Mexican tamales wrapped in corn husks and authentic Salvadoran tamales, which are wrapped in banana leaves. And yes, Mejia says, you can order banana leaves from a Grand Forks supplier.
Mejia strives to use "as close to 100 percent" original ingredients, and she believes in giving customers what they want: healthier, homemade food.
That's the reason customers won't find "chips and salsa" on the menu. Mejia doesn't use a fryer. She uses very little oil, and most of the dishes are either steamed or prepared on a flat grill.
"It's the most authentic food we've been able to find around here," one guest says. "I'm from the South, from El Paso (Texas), and I grew up eating this food, rice and beans, every day."
Treats from Mexico
It's raining outside but inside the small market, guests feel cozy and closer to home. The shelves are filled with traditional Mexican candy and canned goods. Clown and dinosaur pinatas hang from the ceiling, and a tall cooler holds bottles of Mexican soft drinks. Hats stitched with the image of the Virgin Mary hang behind the cash register, and below, a glass case holds jewelry and other trinkets for sale.
The walls throughout are sunshine-yellow and bright-orange stucco and are decorated with the many gifts guests have brought back from their travels: artwork, a Mayan calendar, a clock made of forks and spoons, a sombrero and a Mexican dress.
Several people stop in for lunch, to browse or to shop for their cooking staples.
Sarai's eyes light up as she talks about the candy she grew up on.
"And when I need spices," she says, "I come here because you can't find them at Wal-Mart."
The sisters start early to prepare the day's fresh batch of beans, rice, pupusas and from-scratch chicken soup. It's a labor of love.
"For me, everything is special," Mejia says. "I love cooking authentic food and I like it when the people like it ... when people say it is good food and everything is homemade."
Cooking has been something she's enjoyed all her life. While still living in El Salvador 30 years ago, Mejia said she separated from her husband, and he later died. She then ran a tiny four-table restaurant where she sold cupcake-sized pupusas to provide for herself and five small children.
Since then, she has come a long, long way. Now, she juggles the day-to-day operations of the restaurant and market while her son also works a second job at Simplot to help pay the market's rent.
"We were the first Hispanics to open (such a market) here in Crookston, and the people have been very friendly and supportive," Mejia says. "We've grown little by little and mostly by word of mouth."
The family is grateful for the strong community support and the many friendships that have developed.
That's why, Mejia gives back, Sarai Ramos says. "She wants them all to feel very special and treats them like kings and queens."
If you go
• What: El Gordito Market.
• Where: 214 N. Broadway, Crookston.
• Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
• Specialties: Authentic Mexican and Salvadoran dishes.
• Market: Carries variety of products from Mexico, ranging from soft drinks to spices to candy.