Poised and elegant in her silk blouse, ivory foulard, and gold jewelry, you’d never know Raquel Valencia Gutierrez had a hard life.
“I always knew I wanted to open a taquería,” says Gutierrez in Spanish, tapping perfectly manicured nails against a well-used table in the bustling Taquería Doña Raquel (791 S. Dixie Hwy., Pompano Beach). She contemplates the eclectic mix of patrons feasting on overflowing platters of beef, chicken, and tacos al pastor, slices of tender pork topped with cilantro, onion, and juicy pineapple. “It just took a little while.”
Gutierrez learned to cook from her grandmother after her mother and siblings were killed in a devastating hurricane.
“I did everything,” she says, from making tortillas to cooking frijoles to simply peeling garlic.
By age 15, Gutierrez was itching to see the world. She convinced a cousin to take her to Mexico City in exchange for her favorite pig. He took Gutierrez and let her keep the pig.
She got work as a live-in maid, waxing floors on hands and knees and ironing until 4 a.m. When she tried to leave, they accused her of stealing and threatened to call the police. Instead, they kicked her out without pay.
“Do you know la Oración de La Magnifica?” Gutierrez asks, but before I can answer, she tells me she carries a copy of it with her because it has always been helpful. It helped her land work as a seamstress and kept her in Mexico City, where she found the boyfriend she had left behind in Michoacán. They married and started their family, saving enough cash to move into a shoe-size home.
“There was no light, no electricity,” Gutierrez adds.
She opened a convenience store, taking the bus at 3 a.m. to the wholesale market to buy produce and using a wheelbarrow to bring it all back from the bus stop. It was a big success, but personal reasons led her back to Michoacán.
During that time, she traveled to the U.S. and loved it so much that she promised herself she would return with her children, whatever it took. Gutierrez kept her promise. “You have to put all your effort into whatever you do,” Gutierrez says, stirring the spicy tomatillo sauce she serves at every table.
Gutierrez worked hard, owned several businesses, and eventually saved enough to open Taquería Doña Raquel in 2002.
When she opened, Gutierrez was the sole cook, making breakfast, lunch, and dinner from scratch. Her day began at dawn and lasted late into the night. As the restaurant’s success grew, she hired more chefs, whom she continues to train and supervise.
Doña Raquel uses her tortillas as a backdrop to many authentic Mexican dishes, from quesadilla de chicharrón (quesadilla with fried pork rind) to an extensive selection of tacos such as grilled meat, tripe, and tacos al pastor. Other popular dishes include the chilaquiles, fried tortilla strips topped with a spicy green tomatillo sauce and cheese. You can add fried eggs on top for a true Mexican breakfast.
“The recipes are all from my grandmother, and I have them written down, but still I have to keep an eye on these new cooks — they always want to add a flavor or two of their own," says Gutierrez, "especially with the mole, the traditional Mexican sauce used in many dishes. It has a lot of ingredients, and every region has their own twist to it. Mine, which is from Michoacán, uses the seeds of chile, among other secrets,” she says, with a mischievous smile.
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At 67, Gutierrez shows no signs of slowing down. Loved and respected by her family and guests, she is surrounded by her children and grandchildren, many of whom have followed into the restaurant business as well as other family businesses she began. Her future?
“I want another taquería… and I’d love to write a book!” she says, explaining that in one of her many moves she lost the journals she had hoped to use for her memoir. "But now… who knows?” she says, pausing to receive a warm hug from her granddaughter waiting tables. “¡Probablemente todavía lo escribiré! I’ll probably still write it!”
Taquería Doña Raquel. 791 S. Dixie Hwy., Pompano Beach; 954-946-4490; facebook.com/Taqueria-Dona-Raquel.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.