ELK POINT, S.D. | When Carlos Sanchez opened Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant more than 20 years ago, many Elk Point residents had never eaten authentic Mexican food before.
"They were used to the Tex-Mex stuff you'd get in fast food places," Sanchez said inside the dining room of his eatery at 105 West Main St. "I wasn't interested in Tex-Mex."
He wanted to make the cuisine of his native Jalisco, Mexico.
"I'm sure people thought the food was going to be too spicy or too foreign," Sanchez said. "Over time, my customers came to realize that Mexican food is delicious."
Which is why Los Amigos has seen an increase of diners longing for such distinctive entrees as its Arroz Con Pollo (tender pieces of chicken sauteed with veggies, a homemade Ranchero sauce, a bed of rice, refried beans, pico de gallo and tortilla); Chile Verge (lean pieces of pork simmered in a green tomatillo sauce, bell peppers and onions); as well as the flavorful chicken and beef fajitas.
"People may move away from Elk Point but when they come back, they want the Los Amigos fajita," Sanchez said. "They just love the taste of my food."
This is quite the switch for Sanchez, whose previous experience was in restaurants with strictly American menus.
"I worked in restaurants in California, making American food," he said. "Perhaps, moving to the Midwest made me remember what I left behind."
Initially setting down roots in Sioux City, Sanchez scouted locations for a new restaurant.
"Everybody was willing to let me buy a space in Sioux City, but I couldn't afford it," the husband and father of three explained. "The best I could do was rent a place."
When Sanchez discovered a rental space was opening up in Elk Point, he jumped a the chance.
"This was all the space we had originally," he said, showing off what is now a party room in a larger building. "The original Los Amigos was tiny."
After a few years of steady business, Sanchez eventually purchased his building, expanding the dining room, bar and meeting room.
"It was a real struggle for a long time," he allowed. "Through a lot of hard work, we made a go of things."
Through the sacrifices that he and his wife made, the couple was able to send their children to college. One child is a psychologist, another is in medical school, while Carlos Sanchez Jr. is the master of the grill at Los Amigos.
"For the record, I started working here as a teenager," Carlos Jr. said with a mischievous smile. "But really, I started busing tables earlier than that."
In fact, Carlos Jr. has helped his dad create a few menu items.
That included a seafood dish which had shrimp sauteed with onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and lemon juice in garlic butter and a spicy Ranchero sauce.
"I was going to name the dish Camerones Carlos after my son," Sanchez said.
"Instead, I told dad to name it Camerones Atengo after his hometown in Jalisco," Carlos Jr. interjected.
Over the years, Sanchez said he has traveled to remote locations on vacations. Whenever he's away from home, he'll inevitably wear a Los Amigos cap or a Los Amigos T-shirt.
"I'm always surprised when people recognize Los Amigos," he said. "They'll say, 'We stopped by there on our way to Sioux Falls or the Black Hills or traveling the Interstate."
Sanchez grins at the memory.
"That's a sign you've made it," he said. "People from around the country recognize a little Mexican place in Elk Point."
As Sanchez walked into the bar area, he was greeted by loyal customers who've been regulars practically from the very beginning.
"When I opened Los Amigos, people probably thought I was crazy," he said. "They don't eat in Elk Point, do they?"
"But they came to appreciate that I offered Mexican food that was authentic as well as delicious," Sanchez said. "You just need to be patient and keep the faith."