Field Notes: Kentucky’s Mexican Restaurants

A worker makes fresh chicharrones at Taquería and Tortillería Ramirez in Lexington. Photograph by Delilah Snell.

Gustavo Arellano spent the winter documenting oral histories of the growing number of Mexican restaurants in Kentucky. Here’s a behind the scenes of his recent fieldwork.

If it wasn’t for a fired motel worker, I’d never think of doing an oral history of Mexican restaurants in Kentucky.

Refry this: last August, my wife and I found ourselves in Russell Springs as part of our annual sojourn to the South for the 127 Yard Sale, the self-proclaimed world’s long yard sale. It was a Friday evening and we were ready to relax at our motel.

My wife waited in line at the nearby Coe’s Steakhouse, which reputedly has the best catfish in the region. We never found out, because the motel owner said that the room we had booked four months earlier was actually double-booked, and we were the odd couple out. But not to worry: the worker who had double-booked us no longer worked there. Thanks!

All the hotels and motels within a fifty-mile radius were booked, so we drove to Cave City, about an hour away. Tired, hungry, and upset, my wife and I decided to drown our frustrations in goblets of margaritas and massive plates of fajitas at El Mazatlán, which stood like the proverbial Mexican restaurant on a hill, overlooking Cave City’s hotel row.

The restaurant was hopping—sombreros and fried ice cream and burritos reigned. And, outside of the restaurant workers, we were the only Latinos in the room.

I looked at the menu—El Mazatlán had six locations in Kentucky. And then I thought about the other Mexican restaurants we had visited over the past six years: all chains, almost all patronized by gabachos—white Kentuckians.

The foodie in me marveled at how Kentuckians loved their Mexican food; the reporter in me wondered about the people who ran the restaurant, and why so many of them ended up becoming chains. And an idea was born.

The window of Con Huevos, a Louisville eatery that offers Mexican breakfasts. Photograph by Delilah Snell.

This past February, my wife and I spent a week in Louisville sitting down with the owners of five restaurants—Mayan Café, Santa Fe Grill, The Ville Taqueria, Con Huevos, and Taqueria y Tortilleria Ramirez in Lexington—to gather their oral histories.

My wife, Delilah Snell, took many wonderful photos; I asked the questions. And we documented members of a community that is quickly becoming a part of Kentucky’s fabric. In 1990, Latinos in Kentucky represented less than one percent of the Bluegrass State; the 2010 Census saw them make up three percent—about 132,00 people, the majority Mexicans. And more come every month.

I tried to capture different parts of the Kentucky Mexican experience—recent immigrants, pioneers who arrived in the 1980s, second-generation owners, celebrity chefs, people who first migrated elsewhere in the United States but found their home in the South.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share bits from each oral history, which will appear in their entirety in the fall. In the meanwhile, I’ll raise a shot of bourbon and tequila to that fired motel worker, wherever she may be…

Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, California, author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! and the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. He previously wrote about his love for Kentucky in the Fall 2014 issue of Gravy