SIOUX CITY | It's lunchtime at La Juanita and Joe Gordon already knows what he wants to order.

"Their burritos are the best in town," he enthused. "I love their tacos but the burritos are unbeatable."

Gordon, a diner at the 1316 Pierce St. Mexican restaurant at least 3 or 4 times a month, isn't alone in his enthusiasm for La Juanita's burritos.

In a Feb. 2013 readers poll released by Esquire Magazine, La Juanita came in fifth place for having "the most life-changing burrito in America."

The family-owned business was the only Midwestern restaurant represented in the list voted on by readers of Esquire's Eat Like a Man series.

La Juanita owner Christina Bautista said she was pleased by the national attention but wasn't entirely surprised.

"When you use fresh ingredients, you will will have a great burrito," she said, shortly after lunch rush. "People can't get enough of our burritos."

Moving to Sioux City in the mid-1990s, Bautista named the business after her older sister Juanita. It was Juanita who began the family's "lunch truck" restaurant in Los Angeles back in the 1970s.

"Juanita would set up shop at parking lots around the city, feeding workers during their lunch breaks," Bautista, a Jalisco, Mexico native, remembered.

But competition in the lunch wagon business was so great, the family decided to pull up stakes and move to Sioux City about 18 years ago.

Open seven days a week, La Juanita has built its reputation on authentic, made-to-order Mexican fare. Although Bautista said its carne asada burrito has always been its best seller,  the restaurant's tacos, quesadillas and chimichangas also have fans.

Slowly making her way to the restaurant's ordering counter, Jeannie Frerichs was surprised by the size of the lunchtime crowd.

"I heard La Juanita was popular but I didn't know the line would be quite this long," the Akron, Iowa woman said.

Frerichs was getting ordering instructions from Margaret Klundt, a Sioux City woman who has been to La Juanita several times in the past.

"You can't go wrong with the burritos," Klundt told Frerichs. "And don't forget to ask for the spicy pickled vegetables. They're great as well."

Bautista can't help but smile as more customers make their way through La Juanita's backdoor. 

"I had no idea (Sioux City) would be so good to us," she said. "It's been wonderful."

Bautista said she never worried about competition from more mainstream chain restaurants.

"At those places, you're getting Tex-Mex," she pointed out. " Here, you're getting authentic Mexican food that come from family recipes."

This attention to authenticity seems to be the winning ingredient for La Juanita's success, Bautista said.

"It's nice that people ask us to cater their graduations, anniversaries and parties," she said. "That means they want our food for their celebrations."

In addition, when people move away, they still want their La Juanita fix.

"I've heard that college kids want their parents to send our burritos to school," Bautista said with a laugh. "I think that's very funny."

In fact, that customer loyalty makes all of the hard work worthwhile, she said.

"My workday usually starts at 8 a.m. and I'm still going until we close at 3 a.m.," Bautista said. "That's a long time."

"But when I see smiling faces and people enjoying our food," she added. "That makes me very happy."

When told that a national magazine like Esquire has named La Juanita's burrito as being one of the "most life-changing burritos in America," Bautista can't help but be grateful.

"La Juanita has changed my life as well," she said softly. "It's nice knowing that all of our hard work has paid off."

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Food and Lifestyles reporter

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