Order the chiles rellenos at La Fiesta today and they will look precisely as they did in 1952, when the restaurant first opened in Ohio City. In fact, order damn near anything on the menu – enchiladas, tostadas, tamales – and they will mirror those served at the original spot, which was the first Mexican restaurant in town by a very wide margin.
The owners ditched the 'hood for the East Side in 1976, where they've stayed until today – though they did cross the street in the early '90s when a fire forced them to. But other than addresses, the folks at La Fiesta don't do change.
"I have a clipping about the restaurant from an old newspaper article, and all the food looks identical to how it looks now," explains fourth-generation staffer Brian Adkins. It was his great-grandmother Antonia, a native of Michoacán, who first decided to peddle the foods of her homeland to gringos in the States.
But change is precisely what the modern-thinking Adkins had in mind when he tried to convince his grandmother and family matriarch Toni Valle that they should open up a taqueria next door to the 60-year-old restaurant. It was Adkins, after all, who finally convinced the family to install computers and other technological improvements after decades of going without.
"The quick-serve industry is really taking a bite out of our restaurant business," Adkins explains. "Our customer base is getting older – we don't get a lot of kids over there, unless they come in with their parents or grandparents. We need to replenish our stock of customers."
When the space immediately adjacent to La Fiesta opened up, Adkins knew he needed to act. The opportunity to do something novel that would appeal to a younger audience was too good to pass up, he thought. And talk about low-risk: there would be no need to build out a kitchen and he had all the qualified staff he needed under the very same roof.
"People will drive across town for an authentic taco," he said. "And lines run out the door for big burritos at places like Chipotle."
But first, he needed to persuade Grandma. So he drove her over to the nearest Chipotle to show her the line out the door and convince her that there's a market for this kind of thing.
"I was not familiar with the concept; I had never gone to Chipotle," says Valle, a slight but potent lady. "I don't like those big burritos. I don't like big anything. But we have to change with what our customers want. That's what's important: selling what the customers want."
To do that, Adkins opened up La Taqueria in mid April, a 30-seat fast-casual joint that specializes in authentic tacos, trendy over-stuffed burritos, and creative Mexican-themed lettuce cups. Unlike Chipotle, everything here is made from scratch in house – right down to the beans, which arrive hard as stone in 50-pound bags. La Fiesta's mole alone takes two days to prepare – an earthy brew of Mexican chocolate, spices, nuts and seeds. Chorizo, shredded beef, simmered pork, grilled steak and pork – all of it is available in either small soft corn tortillas, large flour tortillas, or tucked neatly into lettuce leaves.
A multitude of rice, beans, veggies, cheeses and sauces flush out the software. And I assert: If you start with quality salsas, you're already halfway there. La Fiesta's tangy salsa verde, its perfectly textured house salsa, its fiery pico de gallo – and about a half dozen other choices – add a blast to everything they lubricate.
I plowed through three soft tacos – chorizo, chicken mole, and grilled pork, all piled onto doubled-up warm corn tortillas – and the tab comes to a grand total of $7. Toss in chips and salsa ($3.50), a cold Mexican beer ($3.50) or tart and refreshing margarita ($6) and you've got a real fiesta on your hands.
As for the less-than-traditional over-stuffed tacos, Adkins sees them as a sort of gateway drug.
"Maybe someone comes in for an over-stuffed burrito, and they return for a burrito bowl, and then an authentic taco," he says. If he learned anything from his grandmother, it's that you have to give the people what they want.