Two new Mexican restaurants spice up Ronan
There’s a flavor showdown brewing on Fourth Avenue in Ronan, as two new eateries opened in the past month to bring two distinct styles of cooking influenced by the same country: Mexico.
The Sonora Grill and La Cocina De Esperanza are only one block away from each other, but each restaurant’s approach to Mexican food could not be farther apart.
La Cocina De Esperanza, “The Kitchen of Hope,” located at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Main Street, was born as the popularity of Ofelia Folsom’s tamales, enchiladas, and tacos grew at the Ronan Farmers Market throughout the past four years.
“I was working back then,” cook Ofelia said. “Then this time last year I decided to quit and people enjoyed the food, so I thought to do it full time.”
Partner cook Lisa Fredlund was in a similar situation.
“We decided to quit punching time clocks and just try to make a living,” Fredlund said.
The business, which is officially owned by Ofelia’s husband Richard Folsom, started out with Ofelia pounding the pavement and running the roads. She made deliveries of tamales, enchiladas and other dishes to local businesses and tribal government. Hand-delivered paper menus gave a weekly account of the entree to be served each day. Ofelia zoomed up and down the streets of Ronan, scurrying orders to customers while construction workers completed a kitchen and dining area in a wing of the building that houses Lake County Community Development Corporation.
“Everyone wanted to have a place where they could sit down,” Ofelia said. “Even at the farmers market they were asking me if they could have a place to sit down.”
On Jan. 6 the first walk-in customers made their way into La Cocina De Esperanza. The cooks framed the first dollar made.
The pace and style of the restaurant are non-traditional much like its beginnings. Instead of fiesta colors and mariachi music, the theme is much calmer, with subtle warm walls, vases of flowers and a touch of country. Walls of decor and knick-knacks from Fredlund’s antique shop beckon to be perused and purchased.
“When you come in, you can browse around while you are waiting for your food,” Folsom said.
The food itself is made fresh every day. Tortillas don’t come out of a plastic baggie from a major manufacturer. They are squished by a hand press from Mexico.
“This Norwegian sometimes accidentally makes square tortillas,” Fredlund jokes.
The restaurant prepares Michoacan-style Mexican food, which Folsom boasts is the most delicious in all the nation. Folsom hails from Angao, Michoaca, and grew up in San Diego. The region is known for flavorful, spicy dishes. “My mother and I went to Jalisco and she was talking to a guy and she told him where she was from and the guy goes, ‘Michoacan? They have the best food,’” Folsom said.
The restaurant also incorporates other styles of cooking.
“A lot of kids … come in and they don’t want to try new stuff,” business manager Nahshun Folsom said. “They want American food, so we want to have that.”
La Cocina De Esperanza is a place where the cooks listen to their customer’s desires to help make a menu of delicious food with large portion sizes.
“We may have Chinese food,” Ofelia Folsom said. “Eggrolls.”
When she thinks about new competition in town, Ofelia Folsom said that the two entities have food that is distinct enough for both of them to have a niche in the community.
“Let the people make their choice,” Ofelia Folsom said.
Down the street, the Sonora Grill is a formidable opponent. Rick Moreno, who owns the restaurant with his wife Elizabeth, has been a professional chef for more than 30 years. He has also traveled across the country to design more than 200 restaurant concepts for major corporations like IHOP.
“I’ve done everything from authentic Thai and Asian concepts to Italian steakhouses and everything in between,” Moreno said.
Hispanic food runs deep in Moreno’s blood, though. Since 1951 his family has operated The Mexico Cafe in San Bernardino, Calif.
“I’ve basically been doing this my whole life,” Moreno said.
Over the years Moreno has perfected dozens of successful recipes he keeps in his arsenal of skills. One recipe for cilantro lime pesto pasta can still be found on the Food Network website, more than a decade after he was featured as a chef for Guru’s, a Salt Lake City restaurant in the spotlight of the channel’s “Best Of” show.
The Moreno family settled in Ronan four months ago in hopes that their four sons Venice, Enzo, Gianni, and Lucca, who are between the ages of 2 and 9 years old, would have a better quality of life. The family has lived in the area before and thought opening a restaurant in Ronan would be a good fit for their skill set.
“We wanted to bring good authentic Mexican cuisine to Ronan,” Moreno said. “We thought it was time. Obviously it’s working great for us. People try the rest, but say we’re the best. People are literally coming from Bigfork all the way down and from Missoula, too. We haven’t done any advertising. It’s all word of mouth.”
The restaurant sits at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Round Butte Road, and its vibrantly colored walls are painted with emblems of tribes in Sonora, one of the nation’s northernmost provinces, where Elizabeth is from.
The food is partially Sonoran-themed, but also takes influences from other parts of the nation. Everything is made fresh daily, with emphasis put on sourcing local vendors for food items.
“We really strive to bring farm to fork,” Moreno said. “You can tell the difference. People rave about being able to tell that it’s really good and fresh.”
Moreno wanted to test the waters to see how the restaurant would be received before offering its full menu, but he need not have worried.
“We’re getting famous for our carne asada,” Moreno said. “We basically can’t keep it in house, but we also have a cheesecake that basically everyone is going crazy for. It’s called mango-passion cheesecake.”
In addition to great food, the restaurant also makes service a priority.
“We make it a point to come out and talk with the patrons and ask them how was their meal,” Moreno said. “We’re very visible. We’re very approachable.”
On Thursday, Moreno chatted with Jennifer O’Connor as she waited for take out meals for doctors at St. Luke Hospital. The restaurant is popular with the doctors because other establishments close their doors early, but the Sonora Grill makes a last-minute courtesy call to ask if anyone on the hospital night shift wants anything, Moreno said.
The combination of food, family, and friendliness can’t go wrong.
“We’re here to stay,” Moreno said.
As the newcomers try to dig out their niche in the market, Mexpress, a long-time Ronan Mexican-themed establishment hasn’t seen an impact on business yet.
Store manager Jeremy Pichler theorized price point and location might be contributing to restaurant’s ability to absorb the competition.
“They generally have higher prices,” Pichler said. “Most of our combo meals are under $5 ... We’re right on the highway. They are hard to find.”
Pichler said it’s also possible that the economy is rebounding from the recession so more people are spending money.
“Ronan is pretty small, so any time anything opens there is always concern it’s going to take a little piece of the pie,” Pichler said. “As long as the economy comes back in force there will be enough for everybody.”