by Selene Lacayo
This piece first appeared in The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia published in 2021
The solitude was something that Andrés liked most about his job at the parking garage. Is not that he wasn’t grateful to have a place to live but sharing a two-bedroom apartment with nine other men never allowed time for his thoughts to grow. He liked the quiet nights watching over the security screens from his post as the night watch for the parking garage on Fridays and Saturdays. Best of all, he didn’t have to say much to anyone. His English, though it had improved since his arrival almost two years prior, he felt was nothing to be proud of yet. He spent some of the lonesome evening hours trying to learn the language from a set of books and CDs that some of the other guys he lived with had used to learn it. One of them was now working at a call center. That’s what Andrés wanted to do, so he was studying during his evening job, on the bus on his way to work in construction during the week, and every time he found himself with some time on his hands–like at the laundromat.
It was Sunday and Andrés still had one hour and 45 minutes before his shift was done and he could head to his favorite place in all of Philly: Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos. Sunday breakfast was the only meal a week that Andrés allowed himself to splurge on by eating menudo or barbacoa de borrego instead of the ramen noodle in a Styrofoam cup that kept him fed during most of the week. He loved the feeling of belonging that surrounded him and some of his roommates that would meet him there. He didn’t feel unwanted at Anita’s restaurant. The best part was that he got to see Brenda, Anita’s daughter who was always quick to smile and never minded when Andrés used any of the English phrases he had just learned when talking to her.
The alarm clock resonated through the Southside row home. It really meant nothing more than the announcement that Sunday had officially started, for everyone in the family had been up for a while. Anita had left already headed to the restaurant with her camioneta full of pots of barbacoa de borrego that she finished shredding the night before. It was a labor of love: the selection of the best lambs, their placement in the cooking pits, then the careful shredding of the meat making sure that the fat and the meat cuts would be evenly distributed among the large pots. Early Sunday morning, Anita’s family would help her place them into the truck that would take them to her restaurant. Anita would start the fogones to warm everything up while her comadres made tortillas and finished the menudo and the assortment of salsas before the customers started lining up.
Anita had been living in Philly for a few decades now, but had only managed to open her humble restaurant five years ago when she and her husband looked at their savings and decided to take a leap of faith and follow at least one of the many dreams that they had brought with them across the border. What started as a breakfast place offering chilaquiles, quesadillas, and egg-and-chorizo tacos, evolved into a proper taqueria during the week and breakfast place on the weekends with an extended menu and the added art of authentic lamb barbecue.
Anita wanted a place for all Mexican workers to have a warm and properly cooked Mexican meal. Every time she passed a lawn service crew, a construction site or saw a paisana boarding a bus to head to a job cleaning offices or houses, she thought about her first years in the US. The isolation and homesickness she experienced at every moment of the day was only made better by the warmth and love she enjoyed while preparing and eating a meal with her family. She wanted her restaurant to be that place for all Mexicans in Philly looking for a taste of home.
She had been lucky to open her restaurant in a neighborhood where young people with college degrees and a sense of culinary adventure lived. Soon after expanding her humble restaurant to a bigger venue with a menu that included breakfast foods on the weekends, the locals started to frequent it –even the mayor had come and dined with them. She was so proud to have a picture with her displayed on the wall.
Her children, who were now 18 and 21 had been born in Philly. They pushed her to start a Facebook page and accounts in other social media platforms. Their online presence seemed to be the biggest reason for the latest boom they were enjoying. Now, all weekend long, there were big lines of people trying to eat her food –imagine that! Anita felt proud of the success of the family restaurant but was troubled by the idea of turning customers away. Most of the time, the people who couldn’t get a taco de barbacoa or the expected menudo bowl were her regular customers, the Mexicans for whom she opened the place and for whom she cooked with such love. This made her feel as though she was taken away their safe place while depriving them of a taste of home.
The conflict inside her had been spreading to the rest of the family. They were all happy about the tremendous success but felt that something needed to be done to cater to their community while inviting the rest of Philly to share in their culture through food. Anita had not come up with a solution yet. She realized she might have to turn customers away again the coming Sunday.
The sound of the rubble under new jogging sneakers was one of Alfonso’s pleasures. He didn’t have much time for running when he was driving to and from the office and to and from his children’s activities, so he dedicated time to his hobby on the weekends. He was especially happy this Sunday because his family had gifted him a new pair of running shoes.
He liked running at the college track by his house because it brought back memories of his student-athlete days in Monterrey, Mexico. They seemed so distant now that he had been living in Philly for seven years after his American company relocated him and his family to the States. It was an opportunity of a lifetime as far as new adventures go, but it had been hard on his wife, Alicia, who had not been able to make many friends since the move. He felt guilty for leaving their extended family back in Mexico and watching his wife lose her cheerfulness. Therefore, he was sure to get them plane tickets every spring break so that they could spend a couple of weeks visiting Mexico. This year, though, he was set to travel to close a big deal for his company so he couldn’t accompany Alicia and the boys. He was a bit homesick for Mexico but more than anything, he was missing his family, which was how he found himself at the track so early on a Sunday morning.
Tired and more relaxed after running 10 miles, Alfonso thought it would be good for his soul to have a proper Mexican breakfast. After a shower, he headed to Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos. He liked going there, where he could be the Poncho of his Mexican childhood instead of the Al that people at work in the company that brought him to Philly started calling him when they deemed Alfonso “too hard to remember.”
When the Uber driver pulled up, the line at Albert Street Mexican breakfast place was already holding at least 25 people. Angélica was a bit mad at Robert who had overslept making them late for breakfast. “Who would have thought that a little spot far away from the Center City scene would be so popular?” Robert ventured to say closing the car door after him. But he knew full well that good Mexican food, especially the authentic kind, always had a loyal clientele mixed with an enthusiastic following of foodies in search of the best brunch in town. Besides, Angélica had been talking it up saying that it was the closest thing to her grandma’s barbacoa tacos that she had tried since she came to college in Philly –and had warned him of the giant lines if they didn’t arrive early enough. He knew he had messed up.
Meanwhile inside, Beto and Brenda were struggling to convince Anita to take a little risk by buying into their idea. It came to them when they had gone to a beer hall the night before. They had met a group of their friends there for some grub after work. The place was a big warehouse with long wooden tables. Every single spot was used as people sat with strangers at these tables. The whole idea was to enjoy the company of strangers while still hanging out with your friends. They thought this concept could totally be implemented at Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos, but their mom was not so sure that people who didn’t speak the same language would agree to such an arrangement.
“Ma, you just have to listen to us. Por favor, let’s try it today, and if it is a mess, I will take full responsibility for it. Lo prometo,” insisted Brenda who was the youngest and since she was still in high school, the child who spent most of her time at the family restaurant.
“M’ija pero ya está la gente ahí afuera esperando. It’s too late for us to be rearranging tables right now, just look at the line!”
“Precisely because I’m looking at the line, I can tell you that we can do this. Look: ahí está Andrés y sus cuates. I’m sure they’ll be glad to help us out and I will explain what’s going on to the people in line. We’ll put a quick sign on the window too and add a message on social media. No hay problema!” Beto was very affirming as his dad Arturo came to inquire why they had not opened the doors yet.
“OK pues, está bien. But if we have angry customers, you two will be dealing with them!” Anita lifted up her hands and headed to the kitchen to inform the staff.
“I have an announcement to make. Atención por favor,” Brenda started addressing the crowd outsidealternating between English and Spanish so everyone could understand. “First of all, thank you for your patience, please help yourselves to some coffee on the house. We are overwhelmed by the numbers of great folks showing up every weekend to try our family’s recipes and be a part of our community. We don’t like turning anyone away, so we came up with a solution. I hope you are open to it,” Brenda continued explaining their plan of putting tables together to make long dining areas where even the lonely could eat in company of others.
People in line didn’t seem to mind and as expected, the regulars, including Andrés, volunteered to help configuring the restaurant while the rest of the customers waited patiently nursing their coffees outside. Angélica was very excited to be in the line at that moment and started tweeting the action: Mexicans and non-Mexicans are coming together to eat in a family style setting by joining their tables and creating three very long ones. Extra chairs materialized and now the public is helping with the set up #LOVEPhilly.
The line started moving in large groups. The newcomers heard from people in line that today everyone was invited to break bread, or in this case, tortillas, with whomever happened to sit at their table. Alfonso was happy to hear that, being that he was there without his family today. Organically, people in line and at the tables who were bilingual took the role of interpreters.
“Hi I’m Robert and this by my side is my girlfriend Angélica. I noticed you spoke English and since Angélica is busy explaining what menudo is to the people to her right, I wonder if you could tell me if I should go with the chilaquiles verdes or rojos?” Robert dove right into getting to know the people around him.
“I’m Alfonso, or Poncho, and sure! I’ll help you. So, your girlfriend is Mexican, huh? I say you go for the chilaquiles divorciados. They are called divorced because half will have green tomatillo sauce and the other red tomato one. You’ll get to try both, and your lady will be so impressed that you knew to order them that way. ¿Y qué, te está enseñando español?”
“Sólo hablo un poquito.” Said Robert shyly. “But I’m going to be completely immersed in the culture for at least six months. When the semester ends in a few weeks, Angélica has to return to Mexico and she invited me to meet the family and all that. We’ve been dating for a few years, but I haven’t made it down there to meet the extended family. We are here today because she wants me to get a sense of what her grandma’s cooking is like. I’m so looking forward to being with Angélica in her own element. She’s been in mine for a while now, you know?”
“I get it and good for you, hermano! I’m sure you are going to have a terrific experience. Just make sure to always say yes to the food from la abuela, eh!” Alfonso advised concluding the exchange with a wink.
The plates arrived steaming and fragrant filling customers-turned-friends’ eyes with colors and their watering mouths with great expectations. Andrés was so excited to have been able to help Brenda –and Anita—with the new set up that he lost his inhibition and readied himself to help those new to the restaurant choosing what to eat. “Hey, mira, I really like the barbacoa. You can’t go wrong with that. If you like tacos, then you have to taste los tacos de borrego de Anita. Really, that is what I’m eating. They make me feel close to my family. They taste like Mexico!” Andrés said it with such conviction that many around him placed the same order.
Anita couldn’t believe it. The social experiment that her children had imposed on her was turning out to be a success. “I don’t know how you’re having people agreeing to sit elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers. ¿Y oyes eso? I hear a lot of Spanglish and laughter going on!” she was talking to Beto from the host desk as he managed the influx of people with ease.
“Ma people are usually open to new ideas. Besides, esto es lo que hacemos los jóvenes. The newer generations are open to this family style. I told you about the brewery, but I had seen it in other places before. Now, if you could only let me install some software and apps that would help us do some crowd control…” Beto started again with the idea of modernizing the restaurant a little bit. After all, he was learning just that in his hospitality courses on campus.
Anita sighed and said: “Una cosa a la vez, Beto. This is not a race, let’s try new things little by little.” Then she rushed back into the kitchen to tell her comadres the great compliments the food and restaurant atmosphere were getting from many different customers. “I’m glad I listened to you m’ijos!” She called back before the kitchen door closed behind her.
It was time for Anita’s family to sit together at the table and enjoy a meal after the first successful family style dining at Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos. They all were very satisfied with the large numbers they were able to service. They still had to turn some people away, but it was not the large numbers of the previous weeks. If there was ever a place to bring an amalgam of different people together to share a table and form a community, Philly was the right one.