Rich, flavorful stews filled with beef, chicken and pork simmered in large pots while warm, lightly charred corn tortillas rested nearby, fresh off the grill. Refreshing aguas frescas gurgled in drink machines, and along one wall, rustic wooden crates held green tomatillas, red tomatoes, purple onions, dried peppers in all shapes and hues — even the dried flowers of a Jamaica plant, a type of hibiscus.
The well-stocked pantry is a charming decorative touch, except that the ingredients on display are not only real but also used daily at Abuelita’s, the third and newest restaurant from the husband-and-wife team of Everardo Fonseca and Karina Benavides.
If you want to understand the collective heart of a people, look no further than their food. One step inside Abuelita’s, which opened in October at 6400 Midlothian Turnpike, and you might as well have been invited to the homes of Fonseca and Benavides themselves — or their mothers or grandmothers.
Sitting in a corner booth as the traffic outside on Midlothian Turnpike sped by, Fonseca and Benavides explained recently that their mission with Abuelita’s was simple: Make the food that they grew up with, the big flavors coaxed from simple ingredients that turn into complex flavors, thus allowing their true Mexican identity to shine.
Abuelita’s offers eight varieties of guiso — or stew — that include different meats and vegetables and can change daily. Patrons choose one or two for their meal, which comes with rice and beans and fresh tortillas. A separate salsa bar offers several salsas, plus fresh cucumbers and radishes and freshly chopped onions, all of which are meant to complement the stews.
Aguas frescas — beverages made from fresh fruit blended with water and sugar — change daily and include flavors such as pineapple, strawberry, guava, hibiscus, cantaloupe and more.
This not Mexican food as many Americans know it. Nothing is covered under heaps of cheese, and there’s not a single spoonful of sour cream anywhere. Ditto for flour tortillas. Ask for queso and instead of a bowl of dull cheese sauce, you’ll get queso fresco, that slightly salty and crumbly cheese often found in Mexican cooking.
(The couple also own El Cerro Azul, with locations in Midlothian and Powhatan County, where those Americanized Mexican flavors do exist, they say.)
Both from the western state of Jalisco, Fonseca and Benavides recalled how their mothers and grandmothers — the primary cooks in their families — could work magic with little more than tomatoes, chiles and spices, and how their parents often went to the market multiple times daily. Tortillas were made fresh every day.
“In Mexico, you mom is close to the fire [and] makes tortillas at the same time she makes the stews — you always have the freshest things daily,” he said, recalling that he used to help his mother prepare cactus — one ingredient that’s prevalent in the stews at Abuelita’s and sometimes a surprise element for those unfamiliar with it. “This is what we’ve been eating since we were growing up.”
Beyond the food, the space itself bursts with personality. The walls and floors feature colorful tiles. Meals are served in pretty bowls and on colorful plates.
About the only thing that’s not real are the toy birds that “chirp” from their birdcages that hang on the walls — a nod to Mexican grandmothers, Fonseca said, many of whom have pet birds.
Benavides said Mexican food is among the most diverse and nuanced food in the world, thanks to a variety of influences. It’s also widely misunderstood.
She’s hoping those who visit Abuelita’s not only enjoy good, wholesome food, but also learn a little.
“This is a great way for us to be able to show people the truth, the real Mexican food and how diverse and colorful and flavorful it is,” she said, adding that repeat customers often note that they feel as if they’re eating a homemade meal.
“That’s one of the reasons people come back,” Benavides said. “It feels like homemade, and it tastes like homemade.”