Viva Mexico! in Peoria

by Stevie Zvereva

A tour of Peoria’s best-kept Mexican food secrets…

For Mexican-Americans, Peoria may be many miles from home, but at numerous spots in the heart of the city, the secrets of home have taken up residence in Peoria. While you can find good Mexican food at a chain (and no—we’re not talking about Taco Bell!), the best—and most authentic—fare can be found in small shops dotting the city’s older neighborhoods. In addition to a range of traditional Mexican restaurants, Peoria is fortunate to have a Mexican bakery and even an ice cream store! Here is a look at a few of the city’s hidden gems…

Panadería Ortiz Bakery
Peoria’s only Mexican bakery is owned and operated by Bernardo Ortiz. Beckoned to Peoria from Round Lake, Illinois by two of his sisters, Ortiz and his family originally hail from Guanajuato, Mexico. When Ortiz set up shop here a few years ago, he knew he could rely on his family’s recipes and a good friend’s expertise to perfect the bakery’s mix of Mexican, American and French baked goods—with cheesecakes, elephant ears, turnovers, cookies and Danishes flanking more traditional Mexican fare.

“We have a couple of customers who come and say, ‘This looks like a bakery in France!’” Ortiz says with a laugh, but the array of Mexican sweets tells another tale. There are conchas y bollos—traditional Mexican sweetbreads and rolls—in chocolate, vanilla and orange flavors; round, oblong and even duck-shaped. They’re just slightly sweet, the dough pillow-like—and perfect for breakfast, Ortiz adds. Empanadas, fresh from the oven, are filled with strawberries, cream cheese, apples and Bavarian cream. Ortiz also recommends the Mexican-style, orange-flavored corn muffins and marranitos—pig-shaped molasses cookies he likens to gingerbread. A case at the front counter displays numerous pasteles, or cakes, like its dense tres leches soaked in condensed milk, as well as special-order birthday and wedding cakes.

Before moving to Peoria, Ortiz spent 14 years living in Chicago, where Mexican bakeries are more common, he explains. But back home in Mexico, “They’re on every corner,” he says, “selling tamales, hot chocolate and churros.” In an effort to draw in more customers, Panadería Ortiz added hot items like tamales, burritos, tacos, pizza and empanadas to its menu—and the strategy is working. The family is set to open a second location at Sheridan and McClure in the coming months.

“American people, they like our baked goods,” he says with a smile, showing off Facebook pictures of the signs already up at the new storefront. This summer—for the third straight year—the family will man a booth on Saturday mornings at the Peoria Riverfront Market. And if you’re looking for a unique catering option, they also work special events.

Open daily from 5am to 9pm, Panadería Ortiz Bakery is located at 1440 NE Monroe Street in Peoria. Call (309) 643-1300, or find them on Facebook.

Mi Familia
You may not go for the ambiance—just a few unadorned booths line the tiny restaurant’s walls, surrounding a walk-up counter for orders to go. But if you’re looking for good, authentic Mexican food, Mi Familia is hard to beat.

The guacamole is made fresh to order—a minimalist version of avocado, tomatoes and onion—the perfect accompaniment to the always-fresh, fried corn tortilla chips and two homemade salsas—a smoky red chipotle and a green jalapeno-based variety—that accompany each meal. The burritos are huge, chock-full of rice, beans, cheese and your choice of meat: skirt steak, shredded chicken, pork, beef, al pastor (pork) or lengua (beef tongue). A variety of tamales, tacos, tostadas, sopes, quesadillas, enchiladas and tortas are offered a la carte or in combination platters, served with rice and refried beans.

The caldos, or soups, are a specialty item at Mi Familia, and they, too, are fresh as can be. The heaping bowl of chicken stew arrives at the table piping hot, tender meat falling from the bones of half a chicken; its rich broth immersing large chunks of potato and soft green peppers, with warm corn tortillas served bowl-side.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant and its adjoining market, which offers specialty Mexican goods, are rarely empty, and for good reason: the food speaks for itself.

Mi Familia, located at 2007 N. Wisconsin Ave., is open from 9am to 9pm daily. Call (309) 685-8477.

Las Delicias Helados y Paletas
The lime paleta—a popsicle made from natural fruit—is full of pulp, like a freshly-squeezed orange juice. The flavor is bold, one of a couple dozen choices at Las Delicias Helados y Paletas on Main Street. The treats are all family recipes, says Marie Cruz Mendez, co-owner of the family-run business, and everything’s “hecho a mano”—made by hand, she says with pride. Originally from the Mexico City area, Mendez explains it’s always been her family’s dream to open the shop, a passion that’s evident in the assortment of sweet treats.

The helados, or ice cream, are milk- and water-based, with flavors far from run-of-the-mill, including tequila, a creamy version of everything that’s great about a shot of tequila, minus the pain; queso, like an American cheesecake ice cream; and guava, a fuchsia-shaded, fruit-based delicacy. The paletas come in most of the same flavors, with additional options like fruta con chiles—real fruit chunks in juice, dusted with chili powder—and coco—morsels of shaved coconut encased in coconut water or milk. And don’t forget the refreshing iced drinks: fruit juices, smoothies and horchatas—sweet, milky traditional rice drinks—all made to order.

Open for two years now, Mendez says business is great. The family hopes to add new flavors and eventually expand the store, which has become a staple in this re-emerging neighborhood along Peoria’s West Main Street.

Located at 837 W. Main Street, Las Delicias Helados y Paletas is open from 10am to 9pm Monday through Friday and noon to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday. Call (309) 966-0264 or find them on Facebook.

El Mexicano
If you blink while driving down Jefferson, you might miss it, but El Mexicano is well worth the drive back. A family-run business for over a decade, the restaurant is owned by Omar Medina and his business partner, Gabi Arellano. Hailing from Guerrero and Guadalajara, the pair offers up the region’s authentic specialties—like enchiladas rojos, Jalisco-style, and from Guerrero, menudo, a spicy soup made from beef’s stomach (tripe)—in addition to a full menu.

There’s but a handful of tables inside, and whether you choose to stay or take it to go, you’ll order at the counter near the large grid of menu items: burritos, chimichangas, tacos, flautas, gorditas, enchiladas, quesadillas, tortas and rajitas—roasted peppers topped with Mexican cheese—all available with a variety of meats, from chicken and steak to chorizo, lengua, al pastor and chivo (goat). The top-sellers, according to Medina: tacos de pastor, chimichangas and the burrito rancho—a stuffed tortilla, rolled then marinated in a red sauce, and topped with sour cream.

Having recently gained ownership of the family business, Medina’s been experimenting with ways to make the intimate eatery more popular. His eyes are set on future expansion, but above all, he’s focused on customer satisfaction. “Smiles,” he declares. “We always have smiles here.” a&s

El Mexicano is located at 1520 NE Jefferson and is open from 11am to 9pm Monday through Saturday, and 10am to 6pm on Sunday. Call (309) 636-8858.

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