Dipping tortilla chips into a bowl of ranch dip would never be considered an authentic Mexican food practice. For natives of the Evansville area, though, it’s an authentically Midwestern Mexican experience.
Linda Zirkelbach, the general manager at the Darmstadt location of Hacienda, has watched this phenomenon throughout her 31 years working for the Mexican restaurant chain that started in Mishawaka, Indiana, and has four locations in Evansville.
“People who are in other areas, they don’t get that though,” she says. “They’re like, ‘You offer ranch for your chips?’ Yeah, and then you mix it all together — green salsa, red salsa, a little white cheese in there. I always swore people in Evansville should be mixologists, because they mix everything.”
▲ Linda Zirkelbach, general manager of the Darmstadt Hacienda, has worked with the chain for 31 years. She says one of the most popular dishes continues to be the chicken on the beach.
This mixing of foods and cultures is what makes Mexican food in Evansville so interesting and quintessentially Midwestern. Take the popular Mexican food dish chicken on the beach, for example. It’s about as close as you can get to a casserole at a Mexican restaurant. The simple plate of Mexican rice topped with grilled chicken and white cheese sauce is one of the most well-known and popular dishes throughout the region’s many Mexican food restaurants, on almost every single Mexican restaurant menu in town.
Los Bravos, Hacienda, El Patron, Los Portales, and other Evansville Mexican restaurants all have chicken on the beach (sometimes called by its Spanish name, pollo playa) on their menus. Jalisco and Fiesta Acapulco in Newburgh, Indiana, both have chicken on the beach. Lucy’s Traditional Tex Mex in Chandler, Indiana, also has the dish on its menu. Even Azzip Pizza gets in on the fun, adding a chicken on the beach pizza as its pizza of the month last September.
Try researching the origin of chicken on the beach, and the results all will point back to the Tri-State and Evansville region. While some may see this mixing of Mexican and Midwestern cultures as a bastardization of Mexican cuisine, more people are beginning to see it differently — as a separate category of food that isn’t Mexican and isn’t Midwestern but is something in between.
“I’m very respectful to Tex-Mex, because Tex-Mex is a style of cuisine and traditional Mexican food is another style of cuisine,” says Abraham Brown, owner of La Campirana. “The food is a reflection of how our community has been enriched with the different cultural heritages we now celebrate in Evansville. It’s not just diversity through race, but it’s diversity in flavors, too.”
▲ Zirkelbach says one of the most popular dishes continues to be the chicken on the beach.
There is a growing appetite for truly authentic Mexican cuisine in Evansville, which is being satisfied through restaurants like La Campirana and the many taquerías and Mexican groceries that have opened in the last couple of years. Brown says it’s important to remember that just like there is a wide range of dishes and traditions in any culture (Chinese food can be broken down in Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan, and other varieties, for example), Mexican culture also has a wide spectrum.
When deciding to open La Campirana in June 2015, Brown and co-owner Ezequiel Campos didn’t want to compete with the many Tex-Mex restaurants in Evansville. (In Evansville Living’s Dining Directory, there are 44 Mexican restaurants in the area, the third most popular type of restaurant after pizza places and delis.) They wanted to bring something fresh to the area, so they started offering dishes not found anywhere else.
“With our gorditas, we want to make sure people understand it’s not just an item on our menu,” says Brown. “It’s a way to tell a story through that item by being able to say this is the food the indigenous ate even before they were colonized by the Spaniards. It is a celebration of our culture we still celebrate now.”
Even with the rise of true Mexican restaurants, there still is a place for Tex-Mex in Evansville. After all, restaurants that combine Mexican and American cultures make up the majority of Mexican restaurants in the area. Tex-Mex has been a long-loved cuisine in Evansville from Taco Kid, which opened in February 1970 on Green River Road, to Chi-Chi’s and Casa Gallardo, which the Evansville Courier & Press said in the Sunday paper on Jan. 15, 1984, were the second and third Mexican chains, respectively, to open in Evansville. (Hacienda was the first, which opened on First Avenue in 1981.)
▲ The Bravo family opened the first location of the regional chain, Los Bravos, in January 1992 and today has six locations throughout the area. The restaurant offers an array of dishes ranging from more traditional Mexican dishes to popular Tex-Mex plates.
Luis Martinez, the manager of the East Side Los Bravos, says for the Los Bravos chain it’s about finding balance. The first location opened in January 1992 on South Green River Road, in what is today the parking lot of Barnes & Noble, and now has a total of six locations throughout Evansville, Boonville, Jasper, and Loogootee, Indiana.
“We fit in the middle,” says Martinez. “In Mexico, they don’t sell chips and salsa. We sell chips and salsa. Even our Tex-Mex, it doesn’t taste like Tex-Mex in other places. And if you go to a Mexican restaurant, it has a different taste.”
With Tex-Mex’s history beginning thousands of years before European colonists arrived in the early 1500s to the area that is today known as Texas, it makes sense that Mexican food in Evansville would be different from both Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisines. Drawing from these cultures and combining it with Midwestern traditions creates something new, maybe better described as Midwest-Mex, that still is authentic to Evansville.
“The word authentic has been used so many ways that sometimes people have lost the real meaning of being authentic,” says Brown. “There is even food that is fused with different cultures, and it’s authentic because that is something of its own kind.”
Hacienda’s margaritas soothe the soul
On a night more than 30 years ago, Ron Baysinger, a now retired elementary school teacher for North Posey School Corporation, met some friends at Hacienda for margaritas after a stressful day.
“I said I couldn’t wait to get there, that it’s kind of like therapy,” he says. “One of my ex-students was our favorite server. His name was Joe. From that night on, we called it therapy, and Joe was called Dr. Joe.”
For the past three decades, the group has been getting together for their regular therapy sessions, with margaritas on the side of course, to talk about life, work, and everything in between. Baysinger says he no longer even looks at the menu; he has it memorized.
Hacienda’s margaritas have a large following in the community outside of Baysinger’s therapy group (Check out the results of our reader poll on page 57 for proof!), with 22 different tequilas available, daily margarita specials, and unique drink options like the frozen swirl margarita and margarita flights.
“The frozen margaritas are the best, better than anywhere in the country I’ve been,” says Baysinger. “They are not the icy frozen kind most restaurants serve. They are creamy and delicious.”
Lately, he says his favorite has been the Ski margarita, which is refreshing and tastes like Evansville. The recipe was developed two years ago by Linda Zirkelbach, general manager of the Darmstadt Hacienda, while she was working at the West Side location. After creating the special drink, she shared a picture on Facebook. The next morning, more than 1,000 people had shared the image.
“It’s kind of an Evansville thing, but it’s very popular here in the Evansville market,” she says.
There is no denying the popularity of Mexican food in Evansville, but Mexican cuisine isn’t the only food south of the border that is popping up throughout the area. With representation from countries throughout Latin America, HOLA was founded in 2002 to promote cultural understanding and ensure the success of Latinos in the community.
“We always have strived to be a bridge between the growing Latino population in Evansville and the community at large,” says founding member and HOLA board president Daniela Vidal.
Along with various programs, services, and classes offered through the organization, in 2016, HOLA launched the first HOLA Festival to celebrate Latino music and food and raise funds for the development of new programs and donations to causes in members’ home countries, like supporting victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
This year’s festival will take place on Aug. 18 at Bosse Field, with musical groups performing everything from bachata and merengue to salsa and more than 30 food vendors serving dishes from all over Latin America.
“Food and music are universal languages that bring people together,” says Vidal. “But especially for Latinos, food is a point of pride, a connection to generations of family recipes, and a way to showcase the individual tastes of each country.”
At Your Service
Herradura manager shares a taste of his career
Working with food is a family tradition for Luis Pérez. Nineteen years ago, he started his first job at a Mexican restaurant after moving to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico. Now, Pérez has been the manager for three years at Herradura Mexican Restaurant Bar and Grill at 4610 Bellemeade Ave.
“It’s the business my parents started in. Then they grew up and taught us how to do it,” says Pérez. “We keep doing it because we’re passionate about food.”
Herradura’s menu reflects this ancestral passion. With options for lunch, dinner, dessert, and drinks, the restaurant gives customers a fresh taste of Mexico.
Along with the food, the vibrant atmosphere and enthusiastic service ensure Herradura offers an authentic dining experience, says Pérez.
What has been the best part about working in restaurants?
Getting contact with the customers and listening to them. I’ll be working in the bar and people talk about their lives; I like hearing it. I learn something different with each one.
How does Mexican food here compare to authentic Mexican food?
We don’t have enough ingredients to cook with the same flavors as we do in Mexico. It’s the seasonings. We can’t find them here, so we use the ingredients we can find.
What makes Mexican restaurants unique?
The rich flavors, the amount served, music, and fresh food. We try each day to do the best we can. We try to make customers here feel comfortable and like they are in Mexico.
In 2016, Papa T’s Tamales hit the streets of Evansville after Tom and Emily Martin decided to continue the work of Arthur McBrayer, Evansville’s original hot tamale man, who passed away in 2009.
“Tom and I remember the tamale man from when we were kids,” says Emily. “This was before any Mexican restaurants were around, so to us, these were authentic.”
Papa T’s Tamales brings the beloved food stand to a new generation with a small selection of tamales, tacos, and nachos at varying locations in Evansville.
“It gives us the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people,” says Emily. “We offer a unique experience, which can’t be found in a restaurant.”
The Sweet Life
Miguel Ochoa brings traditional Mexican bakery to Evansville
Glass display cases filled with a variety of sweet breads. Trays lined with rows of doughnuts and sugared churros. It’s hard not to be entranced by all the sweet and savory offerings of Panaderia San Miguel, 2004 Washington Ave.
Opened in January 2018 by owner Miguel Ochoa, the bakery stocks not only American favorites, but offers up something unique to the Evansville community — authentic Mexican bakery treats.
“It’s been pretty good. We’ve gotten a lot of big support,” says Ochoa. “Pretty much everyone is happy when they come in. They really like it, and that makes me happy too.”
Ochoa moved to Evansville at the end of 2017 from Indianapolis, wanting to open a bakery offering Mexican desserts and breads after he noticed the lack of such a shop in the city.
“It inspired me to bring something like this here, something new,” he says.
Each day, Ochoa comes in and fills his cases with conchas, churros, Mexican cheesecakes, yeast doughnuts, slices of tres leches cakes, and more. His savory breads are winners with customers as well, especially the bolillos and bolinachos. After 18 months, the popularity of Panaderia San Miguel has Ochoa turning out 400 to 500 items daily.
Ask Ochoa just how many options he has, and he smiles, “There’s a lot of things!” His most popular items are the bolinachos, cream horns, and the tres leches cakes.
Tres leches cakes (“three-milk” cakes popular in Mexico and many Central and South American countries) traditionally are sponge or butter cakes soaked in a combination of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and whole milk or heavy cream, then finished with a whipped topping. Ochoa offers both a vanilla and chocolate option for his tres leches cakes.
“I think the bakery is a little different from other things we have [in Evansville],” he says. “People say there’s a lot of competition, but I don’t see it that way. It’s just something different.”