Nothing earth-shattering; just two days of gluttony. Barbara Pritchett, a professional chef based in Livingston, and I set out to find good Mexican food and immerse ourselves in the Hispanic culture of Billings in honor of Cinco de Mayo.
How ironic that on the first day of our quest, I discovered that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated almost exclusively in the United States because in Mexico, Independence Day is celebrated on Sept. 15.
Nelly Nuno of Guadalajara Family Style Restaurant told me May 5 is the anniversary of a Mexican battle with the French, but it is not celebrated in Mexico like it is here.
Pritchett and I both view Mexican food as "comfort food," and for some reason, both of us like to eat huevos rancheros after a night on the town. Pritchett calls it "hangover food."
I let Pritchett pick the restaurants. We narrowed the many good locally owned Mexican restaurants to three — Sarah's (formerly El Burrito), Mamacita's and Guadalajara. We liked the fact that these three are run by families and have each been in business 10 years or longer.
The life stories we swapped with cooks and customers around Formica tables were savored as much as the meals.
Pritchett grew up in Billings, graduating from West High in 1972 just a few years before Mamacita's opened in 1976. Pritchett works as a private chef six months of the year at the Big River Lodge in Gallatin Canyon and travels the country working with other chefs the rest of the year. Mexican food is among her favorite foods.
"There is nothing more honest than Mexican food," Pritchett said. "It's all about the hard-working Mexican families who prepare the food. The freshness, the meat — everything about it appeals to me."
'Quintessential' at Mamacita's
Our first stop was Mamacitas, 1404 Sixth Ave N. Owner Eva Sigsworth was off on Monday, but her son Arthur Alvarado had lunch with us. He opted for a meatless lunch, a guacamole tostado.
"I come here almost every day for lunch," said Alvarado, who works nearby at Dovetail Design. "That way I get to see Mom."
Mamacita's, which translates to Little Mama, is a tiny diner on a busy street. It has less than a dozen tables, a lunch counter and a nice outdoor patio.
The guacamole at Mamacita's is excellent — creamy and fresh and filled with white onions, just the way Pritchett said she likes it. Pritchett said in Mexico, guacamole is used as a spread, like butter, and put on virtually everything.
Pritchett ordered her favorite — huevos rancheros — and I had a corn taco and a helping of refried beans, with a dollop of chili verdi on top. I loved the crispness of the corn shell and the beans were tangy with the chili verdi. Pritchett called Mamacita's "quintessential Mexican."
Given one word to describe Mamacita's, Pritchett said, "Fresh."
Sigsworth said the most popular items on the menu are the beef and cheese enchilada plate and the whopper burrito. Her favorite dish is the chorizo tacos, made from the Mexican sausage that Sigsworth makes herself. She also makes the corn and flour tortillas fresh every morning. The average price for a meal here is $6.
"I learned to cook from my mom who learned to cook from hers," Sigsworth said. "It's been handed down over the generations."
From there is it was on to Guadalajara Family Mexican Restaurant, 17 N. 29th St., for a second lunch.
Nelly and Juan Nuno fixed us a plate of appetizers including pica mini-chimichangas, taquitos and nachos. But we asked for more food and they brought out steak Mexicana, chili Colorado, chile rellenos and pozole soup and hominy.
Pritchett's one-word description for Guadalajara's: festive.
"The food was savory, especially with the generous spirits of Nelly and Juan," she said.
The Nunos are the only restaurateurs we met who were born in Mexico, and part of the conversation drifted toward the national work boycott Monday in protest of the treatment of immigrants. The Nunos, who are both U.S. citizens, still send money back to family members living in Mexico and visit often. Nelly is from Mexico City and Juan is from Gudalajara. A mural that covers one wall shows the Catholic cathedral and fountains in his hometown.
"I named it Guadalajara because my two oldest kids were born there," he said.
Juan's favorite item on the menu is the carne asada, which is a thin-cut broiled steak garnished with guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo. Nelly's favorite dish is pollo a la crema, which includes strips of chicken breast served in a cream sauce.
Pritchett's favorite dish here is the steak Mexicano.
"I love the simplicity. The flavor of the meat is wonderful and I love all onions," she said.
The average price of dinner is around $11.
Juan said Mexico is such a large and diverse country from inland areas to the Gulf Coast, that there isn't just one style of Mexican food. There are also many different cultural influences from the Spanish and French and the Native Indian tribes, including the Mayans and Aztecs.
He first came to the United States as a heavy equipment operator, but grew tired of traveling and decided to follow in a sister's footsteps by becoming a chef and opening a restaurant. He opened his first Guadalajara's 11 years ago and now owns four Guadalajara's, three in Billings and one in Bozeman.
"You can't be a success if you don't love it," he said.
Rib-sticking, soulful food at Sarah's
On Tuesday, we went to Sarah's, 310 N. 29th St., which was dubbed many years ago as the working man's restaurant.
Set up as a traditional Mexican cafeteria, Sarah's has you place your order directly to the cook and wait for her to call out your order or give you a nod when it's done.
Three sisters — Rosie Ehlers, Sarah Ledesma and Margaret Gatica — opened El Burrito Cafeteria in the mid-1980s. Sarah Ledesma, the restaurant's namesake, died a couple of years back and the two surviving sisters decided to rename the restaurant after her, Ehlers said.
Pritchett and I ordered tamales, a smothered red beef burrito and a crispy corn taco.
"This is more homey, like a Mexican version of the chicken fried steak," Pritchett said as she bit into her burrito, covered in sauce and oozing cheese and shredded beef. "There is a lot more fat in this style of food, but I just can't get all caught up in calories. I am looking for taste and this food has it."
Pritchett's one-word description for Sarah's: soulful.
"Sarah's food is definitely rib-sticking and earthy," Pritchett said.
Almost all of the employees at work during lunch on Tuesday were relatives, and most of the costomers appeared to be regulars, from the teenage boys wolfing down the tamale special to several working women and a retiree enjoying a bowl of beef chili and tortillas.
The most expensive item on the menu is the large nacho plate, which goes for $15, but most items are in the $4 to $7 range.
Pritchett said she enjoyed the homey, comfortable feel of Sarah's.
As she reviewed her foray into Mexican food, Pritchett turned philosophical.
"I think of food as communion," she said. "It's sitting down around the table with the family and sharing. These places are about plates of love."