Most of us were raised on the American dream. Work hard and you can succeed. We all watched "Rocky" and rooted for the underdog. This is one of those stories.
Casa Maria is unique in that it is the first up-scale Mexican food I’ve ever had. Emilia and Ernesto Reyes work hard to make this unique cuisine their own. Working by day cleaning houses to afford their new restaurant, they have put their heart and soul into going back to “handmade traditions that do things the long way, but the right way.” They told me that “the flavors of Mexico are very underrated,” and they “don’t just sell tacos and burritos” in their restaurant. They boast that nothing is canned; everything is made from scratch – even the tortillas are handmade.
Casa Maria is more than a restaurant – it is a statement to all women in the world. Casa means ‘house’ in Spanish, and “[Maria] is an honor to all the women in the U.S., Mexico, and Latin America, because each woman gives us food, and we learn to cook from them. We learned to cook from our mother. From each mother… this is our mission.” Ernesto spoke about the importance of food in culture and how it plays such strong familial roles. “If we are going to do this food – the narrative of what Mexican food is – we are going to do it right… It’s going to make you feel like you are getting food from your grandmother’s kitchen.”
In 1992, when Ernesto’s brother moved to Minnesota, he was quick to discover the lack of Mexican ingredients in grocery stores and lack of Mexican restaurants. He missed the taste of home. Being a great brother, Ernesto drove to Minneapolis from his home in Chicago with a truck full of ingredients. He was surprised by how many people approached him asking to buy his fresh ingredients. He started to make weekly trips from Chicago to Minneapolis to sell ingredients for people to be able to cook Mexican food at home.
Three months later, Ernesto bought a small burger restaurant on Lake Street named ‘Alfaro’s,' and converted it to ‘Me Gusta Mexican Cuisine.' “My focus on the food was a focus for Mexican people," he stated proudly, knowing that he was bringing a new culture and cuisine to the Twin Cities. Soon there was a “big line [of people] that went around the corner." Ernesto and Emilia had only been living in Minneapolis for a few months and “had no idea how life was here.” Ernesto said he had been completely oblivious that his family restaurant was on a street not known for safety, and he was changing how the street defined itself. Local Minnesotans helped him and his restaurant. “I didn’t know why the people wanted to help – I was so surprised," Ernesto said, explaining how people volunteered their time to help paint the new restaurant, and designed and put up a sign for him.
In 1993, their restaurant, Me Gusta Mexican Cuisine, became so popular Ernesto and Emilia opened a new one in a bigger space. The great recession in 2008 suddenly dashed their dreams. They were unable to keep up with the loans they took to make their dreams come true. Wells Fargo took everything – including their home. “We lost the house, the buildings, the business, and we had no money.” One week after the bank took their property, Ernesto’s son passed away when he fell asleep driving to meet them from Chicago. “We lost everything, because we felt we had nothing more to lose.” Ernesto “divorced from God,” and decided to never go into business again.
After several years, Ernesto found himself at the local church. He volunteered to cook for an event and the church-goers loved his food. He was resolute in being done with business, but the church talked him into opening a restaurant again. Friends from his church raised money to help him to be part of this partnership to start anew. Casa Maria was born.
But these partners have had to go through, like many people, the unexpected pandemic. With all this and after several changes in this partnership, Casa Maria continues to struggle to move forward. Emilia and Ernesto had to take a second job to make their dreams come true.
Today, on the corner of 50th and 34th street, Casa Maria is one of the only upscale Mexican restaurants in the Twin Cities. Ernesto and Emilia continue to build their dream, one hand-made tortilla at a time, holding several events per year, including comedians and local bands while you can enjoy Mexican food with a twist. As you go, please remember to help spread the word of this special place. It’s not every day you can see a dream being built.
3/2/23: NENA Housing|Development Committee 6:30-8 p.m., online
3/9/23: NENA Fundraising Events Team 6:30-7:30 p.m., online
3/14/23: NENA Executive Committee Meeting 6:30-7:30 p.m., online
3/20/23: NENA Environmental Committee 5:30-6:30 p.m., online
3/21/23 Wellness and Engagement Committee 7:30-8:30 p.m., online
3/23/23: Board of Directors Meeting 6:30-8:30 p.m., online and at Morris Park Rec Center
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