SIOUX CITY | Rudy Navarrete Jr. thinks of himself as a culinary archaeologist.
Luckily, his 90-year-old grandmother Eulalia Navarrete has helped him uncover the origins of some of the seminal dishes severed at Rudy Navarrete's Mexican Food.
"You almost never see an entomatada (a folded tortilla that is bathed in a tomato sauce) on restaurant menus," Navarrete noted. "I wanted to know why since I always thought it was as common as tacos or burritos."
Entomatadas -- one of the most popular meals at Rudy Naverrete as well as his family's Navarrete's (3124 Highway 75 North); and Alicia's Taco Dome (109 Gaul Drive, Sergeant Bluff) -- were first made by Eulalia Navarrete in the late 1940s.
"My grandparents had a restaurant in Harlingen, Texas that served both Mexican and American food," Navarrete explained. "Since (Fiesta Tourista Cafe) had mostly Caucasian customers, my grandmother added entomatadas to the menu since it was milder tasting."
It was also accessible to customers unfamiliar to Tex-Mex cuisine.
Similar to enchiladas, an entomatada is essentially a meat-filled burrito smothered in a simple sauce of tomatoes, onions and Mexican seasonings.
Eulalia Navarrete remember her popular entomatada recipe when the family moved to Sioux City in the 1960s.
"When my grandpa died, my grandmother had to find a way to support her eight children," Navarrete said. "She began cooking Tex-Mex meals at (Sioux City's former) the Half Moon Inn before opening the original Navarrete's (inside the former Economy Grocery Store)."
Just as it was in Texas, entomatadas proved to be Eulalia Navarrete's most popular meal.
"It was filling but it wasn't foreign," Rudy Navarrete said, explaining the dish that now uses a commercial tomato sauce. "It wasn't scary to people unfamiliar to Mexican foods."
When your grandmother set up shop in the early 1970s, many Sioux Cityans had never had authentic Mexican cuisine. Was that difficult for her?
"Yes it was. This might sound strange but, 45 years ago, you couldn't buy pre-made tortilla, jalapenos or, even, avocados at most grocery stores. My family had to make everything by hand or travel to larger cities in order to get ingredients."
I imagine that meant your grandmother had to be creative when it came to the foods that she served, right?
"Absolutely, but she also had to make sure the foods were Tex-Mex as oppose to authentically Mexican. Grandma knew that Sioux City didn't have a big Hispanic population at the time, so she kept her foods simple and largely filled with ground beef."
Nowadays, you can fill an entomatada with any kind of meat along with different types of chiles. Do you think Americans have acquired a taste for Mexican cuisine?
"Today, you can get Mexican food any place. But my family's restaurants remain popular and we all use my grandmother's original recipes. They've stood the test of time."
I know your grandmother officially retired in 1980. Still, she continued to cook for her family. Did you have a favorite dish that your grandmother made for you?
"I loved her Mexican spaghetti. It was actually more like a soup made with angel hair pasta and a flavorful tomato sauce. But I really like everything my grandmother makes."
I suspect that also includes her entomatadas, right?
"I've had customers who have left Sioux City. When they come back, the first thing they will order is our entomatadas. They tell me nobody else makes it. Over the years, my grandmother's entomatada recipe has become a comfort food for me. It looks like it's become comfort food for our customers as well."