Florence motel adds Mexican flavor

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Vicki Covarrubias has good reason to believe her Mexican dishes at Angie’s Fast Food are authentic-she gets the stamp of approval from husband Gaspar.

He grew up in a little town in central Mexico and left home at the age of 26 to come to the United States.

“I use a lot of Mexican cookbooks,” Covarrubias said about researching and preparing south-of-the-border food since marrying Gaspar in 1985.

“I’ll read through the recipe and ask him if that’s what he remembers his mom putting in. And if it isn’t, then I don’t do it.”

Since 1997, the couple has owned and operated the Holiday Motel at the junction of U.S. highways 50 and 77 in Florence. They have lived on the premises and talked about some day opening a restaurant there, too.

“The cafes in town here close so early,” Covarrubias said.

“They close at 8 p.m. during the week. Sometimes, the construction people during the summer don’t even come in until 8 p.m. And there’s no place to eat on Sundays.”

The nearest restaurant open Sundays is about 11 miles away. After a long day at the wheel, some of her motel patrons want to park their vehicles and have a convenient evening meal.

A micro loan through South Central Kansas Economic Development District was approved last fall. Covarrubias began in earnest to convert two motel units on one end of the motel complex into a restaurant with a dining area, kitchen, pantry and rest room.

Angie’s Fast Food became a reality, and the doors opened the first week in January.

“I like challenges,” Covarrubias said. “We came down here and started running the motel, and that was a challenge, because we’d never done anything like this. And I’ve never done anything like this restaurant, so it’s a challenge.”

At the first of the year, a fire wall was installed, walls torn down, floors laid with ceramic tile and a kitchen installed-all in preparation for restaurant customers.

Although some patrons mistakenly call her Angie, Covarrubias said the confusion is worth it. The name is a tribute to daughter Angelina, who died shortly after birth. Four other children range in ages from 28 to daughter Liz, who is an eighth grader in the Marion school district.

“Liz comes home after school and helps me,” Covarrubias said. “And once in awhile, my husband helps later on in the evening.

Gaspar has a second job to supplement the family income, and Covarrubias handles the motel and the restaurant.

“I’m the cook, the maid and the whole nine yards,” she said with a hearty laugh.

If she’s busy working in the restaurant, Covarrubias has a sign to direct motel customers to the end of the building to find her.

The newly converted motel units have left ample room for a dining area that seats 12 to 14 customers. Orders are placed at a walk-up window, located between the kitchen and the dining room, and customers are called when their food is ready.

“We wanted to be trucker friendly and convenience friendly so those who wanted to could come in and have their meal within 5 to 15 minutes,” Covarrubias said.

“We have a lot of people from town call up and want to-go orders. They’ll call ahead, and it will be ready when they walk in the door. With tacos, burritos and enchiladas, they can be made fast and quick-once my shells are made. “

The tortillas at Angie’s Fast Food don’t come in a bag wrapped in plastic from a grocery store-they’re handmade by Covarrubias.

And why does she go to the trouble of making homemade flour or corn tortillas?

“They’re just fresher,” Covarrubias said. “You can taste the difference.” Her flat-bread delicacy is made with flour, baking powder, water and a scant amount of oil.

The menu includes beef or chicken tacos; nachos; bean, beef or chicken burritos; beef, chicken or cheese enchiladas; pork tamales; taco salad; and Taco Gordos.

“Taco Gordos are going over big right now, because everybody likes the crunchiness of it-the soft and hard together,” Covarrubias said about the restaurant specialty for $2.

“It’s a soft shell on the outside filled with a scoop of beans. We warm the hard shell in the oven a little bit and place that in between the beans and the soft shell. We put the hamburger mix inside the hard shell.” The soft shell is folded up around the hard shell and topped with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.

The only non-Mexican food to be found on the menu is a hamburger for $2.50.

Customers with a hearty appetite, can order combination platters of two regular menu items or pick two or three items and make up their own combination plates.

The combination platters come with a choice of two of the following: rice, Mexican fried potatoes or refried beans.

Step into the restaurant any given morning and peek into the kitchen to discover the beans simmering in a pot on the cookstove.

“You fully cook the beans, heat up a little bit of oil in the pan, pour the beans in there, and it makes them kind of pop,” Covarrubias said about her refried beans.

Although she doesn’t plan specials for particular days of the week, she will offer unusual Mexican food specials at various times and advertise them on a sign in front of the restaurant.

On Valentine’s Day, Covarrubias prepared shrimp-cocktail soup and made homemade bread sticks. The soup is served cold and combines shrimp with tomato sauce, avocado, onion and cilantro.

In the summer, she plans to offer a Mexican fruit salad combining watermelon, cantaloupe, mango and strawberries with the unusual addition of cucumbers.

In addition to the popular Taco Gordos, Covarrubias said the enchiladas would come in second in a customer-preference race.

“We do our enchiladas different than a lot of people do because we actually grill the enchilada shell,” Covarrubias said.

Cooked chilies are blended to make a sauce that is strained through a colander.

“Then, I dip the flour tortilla in the sauce, and grill it on both sides,” Covarrubias said. “We usually put ground beef or chicken in it.”

Staying true to her husband’s family recipes, Covarrubias said she does not serve spicy-hot food items at her restaurant.

“I don’t put any peppers inside the ground beef, chicken or pork,” she said. “I do use a little bit of pepper for the tamale, because you have to have that little extra kick for a tamale.”

Covarrubias fills a corn husk with a mixture of corn flour and the addition of cooked and seasoned pork roast cut in small pieces. After folding over the corn husk, she steams the tamales for one to two hours.

“When they come out, the corn husk falls off. You don’t eat the corn husk, you eat the pork and the corn flour that forms a little coating.”

A future menu item will be quesadillas, and Covarrubias shared the following simple recipe that will be used in her restaurant.

Quesadillas

7 ounces of Mexican-blend cheese (Colby jack or cheddar can be substituted for Mexican blend.)

8 flour tortillas, about 6 inches in diameter

Cut up or shred the cheese. Using one tortilla at a time, warm the tortilla on a large griddle, and sprinkle with cheese. Fold over the tortilla and press edges together to seal, cooking on each side for about one minute per side. Remove from pan, cut in triangles, and serve with salsa or guacamole.

Her restaurant stove is small now, but if she buys a bigger, industrial-type stove in the future, Covarrubias said she may bake more frequently and offer pizzas.

On her busiest days, she has served 15 to 20 customers and that’s fine because she plans to start small and build her menu and business slowly.

Covarrubias said she is encouraged by all the compliments she’s received and the favorable comments from her return customers.

“They say they really like the Taco Gordos,” Covarrubias said. “One young man in town, he’s always up here eating. He’ll sit here and tell anybody who comes in, ‘Order the Taco Gordos. They’re my favorite.'”

In addition to enjoying the compliments, Covarrubias said she believes she’s making an impact on the economy of Florence.

“I feel we’re helping the community as a whole,” she said.

“Even if we only get one person in here in a day, that’s one person who may not have eaten in this town. And each and every dollar we can bring in as the motel or restaurant, it will make the town a better place to live.”

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