La Cocina de Lupe
Rolling hills of cactus clawed up from the ground surrounding Lupe Loza’s childhood home, which had no running water or electricity. Raised in the arid state of Aguascalientes, Mexico (named for the abundance of geothermal hot springs), Loza grew up on cheap and filling fare: homemade tortillas, potatoes, beans and cactus (nopal) collected from her backyard.
Loza is now a successful business owner in Buhl, Idaho—also known for its hot springs. Over the past 10 years, Loza’s restaurant, La Plaza, has gained a loyal following for serving homemade Mexican fare that pays homage to her country roots.
“It’s not like a fancy four-star restaurant. No, it’s really autentico from the regular Mexican people; from the country,” said Loza with a warm smile, her long black ponytail streaked with grey. “That’s why I like to add cactus on my plates, potatoes, poblano peppers and tortilla soup, because I grew up with that.”
Loza and her husband, Chon, immigrated to Buhl looking for work. Loza never planned to own a restaurant, but when her infant son needed to be hospitalized, she had to find a way to make ends meet. She started selling burritos to local dairy workers and homemade tamales on the soccer fields. And her fans began to multiply.
“After a little while, more people wanted more food and more food. And the police told me, ‘You’re selling too much food and this is not the way to do it.’ And I said, ‘You can come and check my kitchen, it’s really clean!’” said Loza. “And they said, ‘This is not Mexico.’”
So Loza and her husband bought an old house on Main Street and fixed it up, converting the garage into a break room and adding an open kitchen. But the locals, who were used to tried-and-true Tex-Mex joints, weren’t sure what to make of the menu.
“Actually, the first year was really hard because people wasn’t ready for the menu. …Almost all the restaurants served the same menu, the same plates,” said Loza. “So when they was coming here, they was asking for the same plates like the other restaurants and I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
To lure in new customers, Loza hung a sign that said: “Try it. If you like it, you pay. If not, it’s free.” Apparently, that was enough to convince people to sample her handmade sopes, tacos and empanadas.
“Empanadas we make with fresh corn masa,” said Loza. “We stuff it with pork and cheese like a pocket and we fry it. So the cheese melts on the pork and makes really, really good flavor.”
Though La Plaza’s plates are garnished with the standard generic accoutrements—chopped lettuce, diced tomatoes, sour cream, shredded cheddar—the real zing comes from Loza’s homemade sauces. Loza uses locally grown tomatillos to give her red and green salsas a flavorful bite.
“Everything’s roasted—jalapeños, roasted tomatillos and cilantro,” said Loza. “So the color on the salsa, that’s dried peppers or the jalapeño peppers.”
Though Loza also makes her molé from scratch with bananas and chocolate, the sauce most folks rave about is a creamy, garlicky, limegreen concoction she developed as an alternative to ranch.
“Over here, people like salads and they’re always asking for ranch … I had to make a special dressing, not from the store because I want everything fresh and organic,” said Loza. “So I make my own dressing and it’s cilantro dressing and it’s getting so popular.”
The cilantro sauce can be drizzled on a tiny carnitas taco with a squeeze of lime, or squirted on top of one of Loza’s famous fried potato tacos, filled with cheesy mashed potatoes.
“Some people says, ‘Is it meat on the taco?’ And I say, ‘No, it’s just potatoes,’” said Loza. “When people try it they fall in love with potato tacos.”
But Loza’s personal favorite dish is a tribute to her hometown.
“For me, my favorite, probably because I grew up with cactus and potatoes, is bistec ranchero,” said Loza. “That’s steak cooked with red salsa, cactus, potatoes, onions, cilantro and tomatoes, so it makes everything really nice flavored all together.”
Scooped into thick, freshly made tortillas, the strips of well-seasoned steak play well against a smear of refried beans, a sprinkle of rice and a healthy glug of salsa.
“These kind of plates, it’s nothing secret,” said Loza. “It sounds like nothing special, but the experience is when you try it. … It’s nothing fancy, but I think the smaller things makes a difference.”
Citing the film Like Water For Chocolate, Loza added: “When you cook with your heart, you know on the plate.”