By Stella Guy Warren
Special for The Sopris Sun
In elementary school, my mother and I made weekly trips to Garcia Market and La Fogata, looking for platanos fritos con crema —a traditional Central American dish with fried plantains. With sweaty hands, I approached the counter and attempted to order my food in broken Spanish. The experience was almost always as uncomfortable as it was valuable to my communication and interpersonal skills.
Middle and high school Spanish classes increased my understanding of grammar, conjugations, and pronunciation, but sometimes lacked an authentic, experience-based framework to practice. To cap off my senior year at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, I left campus to pursue a three-week project in any area of interest. As such, I channeled my fifth-grade inner self and returned to these restaurants to hear their stories, ask them questions, and push my Spanish conversational skills. Working across language barriers can be uncomfortable, but that’s fully offset by the connection these conversations allow.
As you exit Highway 82 and take the 133 towards Carbondale, you are greeted by Garcia’s Market on the right. Located at the crossroads of Carbondale’s Latino and Anglo-Saxon communities, the vibrant orange building has been a fixture for as long as most locals can remember. Named after founding owners Leticia and Samuel Garcia, the company is known for its family recipes and authentically fresh foods.
The most notable are the tacos, says Franciso Rivera, the current owner: “My business works because, well, everyone loves tacos. This sentiment carries over to other Latino-owned businesses in Carbondale.
Tortilleria La Roca similarly acted as a culinary cornerstone for the community. Opened in 1999, La Roca and its handmade tortillas quickly became notorious throughout the valley. Although they are most popular for their tortillas, selling between 6,000 and 7,000 a day on average, La Roca’s counters are also full of dried chilies, Mexican candies, crisps, fresh salsas, cheeses, seasoned meats and more.
Manuel Ruiz, owner of La Roca, moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to Colorado with his family when he was five years old. Growing up in the Valley, Ruiz began to recognize a growing immigrant population from Chihuahua and other neighboring states in the Mexican Sierra. “I wanted to do something for Latinos here,” he said. “I opened La Tortilleria – starting small – in hopes of providing them with the jobs and products that people in my community need.”
Although La Roca was originally founded to serve the Latin American population, it has become very popular with mixed communities. “The majority of my clients are Anglo-American,” notes Ruiz. But Carbondale’s multicultural and multilingual environment has not been an obstacle to his business. Ruiz reassures: “There is no language barrier when we all do our best to understand each other. Everyone here is very nice and appreciates our work, and that’s all that matters. This thought was echoed across the city at La Fogata, a Salvadoran restaurant that opened in 2016.
Estela and Marta Serrano in front of La Fogata, photo by Stella Warren
“Most people tell us they can’t say much,” says co-owner Estela Serrano. “I think people can be embarrassed when they feel uncomfortable trying to speak a different language, but it’s a beautiful thing when we can practice together.”
Originally from Usulután, El Salvador, sisters Estela and Marta Serrano moved to Carbondale in 2000. Hoping to bring traditional family recipes to the Carbondale area, the Serranos started a stand at Mountain Fair, serving handmade pupusas and ceviche. Their pupusas (a corn tortilla stuffed with beans, meat or cheese) were a big hit with visitors.
Encouraged by the community’s response, the Serranos turned their annual stand into a restaurant with the help of family and friends.
“Our biggest challenge was creating a menu. We knew people liked our pupusas and our ceviche, but we had to go beyond that,” says Estela. They began incorporating a range of family recipes, from seafood and enchiladas to fried plantains and yucca.
Besides their esteemed pupusas, family is central to La Fogata’s success. “Everything we make is unique to our home in El Salvador and our family,” Estela noted.
A business rooted in family also rings true for other local owners. “Our goal has always been to bring a piece of our family to yours — from our hearts to yours,” says Desireé Curiel, co-owner of Axkawa, a family-run Mexican restaurant in downtown Carbondale. Although they are a relatively new addition to Carbondale’s dining scene, Axkawa started out as Señor Taco Show, a longtime favorite for tacos and margaritas.
“Most people don’t know that Axkawa is a continuation of Señor Taco Show, not a separate company. But most of the time, people just don’t know how to pronounce our name,” says Desireé. “Osh-Ka-Wa,” she spells out, explaining how the word translates to “abundance” in Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztec people. She explained that in Mexico corn is the “food of abundance” – a cultural and culinary staple. Incorporating corn into their menu was easy, but the Curiels embodied this notion of abundance more in their home decor.
Beyond a typical dining experience, the art of corn archetypes adds a special flavor to the atmosphere of the restaurant. “Each artwork in the restaurant is the visual representation of corn,” says Desireé – the prints and paintings are designed to exhibit the pattern, texture and shapes of holy corn. In modern America, and now around the world, corn is the foundation of our diet. Corn and its derivatives are almost always found in all processed foods. Despite its ubiquity, we tend to forget the history of corn and its special importance in communities in South and Central America. Latino-owned businesses like Axkawa are instilling the cultural ethos of abundance back into our lives and our stomachs.
Whether through sharing food, language or culture, there are places in Carbondale that offer us all the privilege of being part of something bigger than ourselves and our respective bubbles.
“It’s a beautiful thing when we can practice together,” Estela said. “That’s how it works in language exchange.” I am deeply grateful for the practice, the people and the places that allow me to overcome the discomforts that my young self felt when learning a second language.
The solution, Estela continued, is to simply keep trying.
Everything about Axkawa, formerly Señor Taco Show, is the culmination of the Curiel family. Photo by Stella Warren