MILBRIDGE — Romana Vazquez is quick with a rolling pin, deftly transforming one blob of dough after another into a large, thin circle that gets thrown into a hot pan waiting on the stove top.
A friend of Vazquez’s watches over the big circle of dough, flipping it as need be until it becomes a soft, homemade flour tortilla. The women chatter in Spanish as they work, occasionally breaking into laughter.
Every day, Vazquez makes 250 flour tortillas for the customers at her take-out stand. Corn tortillas are made to order. Thursday through Saturday she serves specials such as pozole, menudo and mole, but it’s her tortillas that have lured migrant workers in the blueberry fields to her mobile cantina for more than a dozen years.
The giant flour tortillas, a reminder of home, are used to make huge burritos stuffed with steak (or some other meat), beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and sour cream. They are big and heavy, and there is no annoying rice filler, although a side of Vazquez’s perfectly cooked yellow rice (another customer favorite) would go well with it – if you can eat all of that.
These may well be the best burritos in Maine, and at $4.75 they are half the cost of Portland burritos.
Welcome to Vazquez Mexican Takeout, a family business that began in 2001 in an old bus in the Jasper Wyman & Son blueberry fields and just this year landed in a permanent spot, a brand new restaurant kitchen attached to a white clapboard home on Main Street. The stand looks like a cross between an outdoor diner and a summer ice cream shack. Customers order at the window, then take their food home or sit at one of the half dozen or so picnic tables under a roof that keeps out the rain.
LIKED BY LOCALS AND TOURISTS ALIKE
The new place opened in May, and locals and tourists are already swarming like bees on lowbush blueberries.
Bruce Munger, a teacher on Mount Desert Island and volunteer firefighter, drove 20 miles from Sullivan just to come have a midday meal on a recent chilly Wednesday, when storms brought rain and fog and sent temperatures down into the low 60s. This was his first visit, but he said he would be back. “I’ve heard about it off and on for years,” he said.
Munger and his wife ordered a gordita (a round corn pocket stuffed with meat, lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese and sour cream), a guarache (a homemade oval tortilla topped with meat, lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese and sour cream), a burrito and a taco. He said he especially loved the tacos, which are made with homemade corn tortillas and come in classic (meat, onions, cilantro and lime) or supreme (loaded).
“Delicious,” he said. “The shell – it’s not something that just came off of a machine. It’s homemade. It had a nice chewy texture. It wasn’t crunchy. Better to have it in your stomach than on your shirt.”
Juana Vazquez, one of Romana’s five daughters who helps in the kitchen, said the blueberry rakers have followed them to their new location as well, coming in after work for dinner. And it’s not just workers from Wyman’s anymore. “Here, we’re getting people from all the different campgrounds around here,” she said. “There’s (blueberry rakers from) Cherryfield Foods, there’s some other camps around Columbia. They’re coming to eat here.”
Romana Vazquez has been making tortillas since she was 9 years old and had to help her mother feed her 13 siblings.
“My mom and dad, when they met each other, my father’s grandmother used to cook,” Juana Vazquez said. “She used to sell quesadillas and enchiladas and gorditas in Mexico when they had festivals, and my mom and dad always helped them. So they’ve been doing food for a long time. My mom used to make flour tortillas with my dad’s grandmother.”
Juana tells her parents’ story because even after 30 years in this country, their English is rough. (They are both now permanent residents.) Their children were all born here, so Juana speaks English perfectly and translates for her parents when necessary.
It can still be difficult to gather details; Romana seems more interested in rolling tortillas than sharing her feelings with a stranger, and while her husband, Gosafat, makes a valiant effort, he understands English better than he can speak it.
Romana and Gosafat are both from Apaseo el Alto, a city in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. They were already married when they first came up to the United States to follow the harvest three decades ago. Gosafat picked oranges, apples, cotton and more vegetables than anyone in the family can recall.
In 1998, one of his friends invited him to Maine to process sea cucumbers and rake blueberries. Romana stayed at home and cooked for some of the workers, feeding them when they got off their shifts.
In 2001, one of the crew leaders asked Gosafat if he and his wife would be interested in preparing food for the rakers in the field, and they grabbed the opportunity. The family had a small bus they parked at Deblois, the location of Wyman’s processing facility and worker housing, and they would sell out of the bus and load up meals in a truck to deliver them to the fields.
“Up in Deblois we had something different every day,” Juana Vazquez recalled.
At a time when food trucks started following some trendy hipster notion of mobile food, the Vazquez bus was the real deal. Factory workers on their 12-hour shifts visited the bus on their lunch breaks. The buzz about the food reached town, and some locals started showing up as well.
They asked the Vazquezes if they would consider selling their food in Milbridge. The family had a house on High Street and began selling there, eventually replacing the dilapidated bus with a newer RV. They’ve been selling there, as well as in the blueberry fields, the last four years, opening at the house in May, then closing in August to go to Deblois. Then they would open at the house again for September and October before closing for the winter.
Last July, the family got the house on Main Street and spent the winter fixing it up. In May, they opened their first permanent takeout. It’s a major step towards their dream of owning a year-round, sit-down restaurant some day – not a daily place in the off season, but maybe open every weekend, or a few days a week in winter. Gosafat is already talking about enclosing part of the Main Street structure so they can have a couple of indoor tables available in late fall.
Juana Vasquez said they now also sell food in November to wreath makers, a seasonal workforce made up of both locals and migrant workers, and they will try to keep the takeout open through then. The family will leave for their yearly sojourn to Mexico in December. When all six children were in school, the trip to Mexico would take place in summer; the family would leave in June and drive straight through for four days without stopping, then return in August for blueberry season. Today, with all but one child out of school, they fly down in December for the annual New Year’s celebrations and return in mid-January.
FAMILY MEMBERS LEND A HAND
Everyone in the family pitches in at the takeout when they’re needed, but it’s getting harder to find enough help. Juana, her sisters Gabriella and Suzi and her aunt all help out, but their siblings have gone the way of other entrepreneurial immigrant families and started their own businesses.
“My sister Juliana has a day care here in Milbridge,” Juana said. “My other sister has a painting business, and my brother has a garage on Route 1.”
Even Gosafat can’t help as much as he used to because he is a partner in his son Roberto’s garage and spends a lot of his time there now. This year, for the first time, the family had to skip the blueberry barrens. Gosafat rented out the family RV to a friend from Florida, who has taken his place selling food to the rakers. Romana vows they will be back next year.
But for now, she is loving her new kitchen, which is filled with stainless steel appliances and is much larger than the old RV.
Gosafat used to make a couple of trips every month to Boston or New York for supplies. While Hispanic food has found its way into local grocery stores, it’s not sold in the kind of quantities the takeout needs. This year, though, Gosafat signed on with a distributor who can deliver Mexican drinks, chile peppers, Maseca corn flour for tortillas and corn husks for tamales.
With more space, the family is gradually expanding the menu. This year, they added Gifford’s ice cream and a selection of homemade paletas – Mexican popsicles – in flavors like tamarind, strawberry, coconut, pineapple and lime.
“We’re going to try to do some mango and blueberry,” Juana Vazquez said as her squirming 4-year-old niece Dulce sampled a paleta by her side. “Those are the two other ones that they’ve been asking for. Blueberry, I think, will be easy, but I don’t know about mango. Stuff like that’s hard to find here.”
Eventually, they’d like to add seafood. “We have shrimp tostadas sometimes, but not often,” Juana said. “We’re thinking of adding some shrimp tostadas or fish tacos or ceviche. We’ve had some people ask for lobster empanadas.”
Customers are not shy about making requests, but they don’t always realize that what they’re asking for isn’t in Romana’s repertoire. Chimichangas, for example, are from southern Mexico, and no one in this central Mexico family knew how to make them.
“A lot of people were asking, ‘Why aren’t you doing chimichangas?’ “Juana said. “So I went down to Mexico, and I was, like, ‘What’s a chimichanga?’ We added that, and it sells really good.”
And they won’t make hard tacos, even at customers’ request.
“I think hard tacos are a Taco Bell thing,” Juana said. “We do fried tacos like taquitas, the flautas, but not a hard-shell taco.”
Customers have also requested dump burritos – burritos smothered in salsa – but to Juana and her family, salsa is something that’s served only on the side. Romana makes all of the takeout’s salsa herself – a mild green salsa and a spicier red one. “The way she makes it is always good,” Juana said. “She doesn’t like anyone else to make it.”
That kind of care and attention does not go unnoticed. Juana said her parents are proud that they have been accepted into the local community and are able to share their food and culture with the residents of Milbridge. As it started to sprinkle, Romana and her helpers were working on an order of 100 tamales to be served at the local school for parents’ night.
Will the dream of a family restaurant last? It’s a large family, so one would hope so. But 16-year-old Suzi, who started out at 13 selling food in the blueberry barrens with her father, isn’t so sure that this will be her future. She says she enjoys working with her mother, and she likes going to Wyman’s each summer to catch up with the workers who come back every year. So for now, she takes orders, hands out food and answers the phone.
Still, “I’ll probably do something else,” she said, sounding like many a teen. “I don’t mind this, but I’ve had an experience of this, and I want to try something different.”
On the other side of the counter, while one customer waited for Suzi to retrieve his salsa, he opened the container that held his Mexican plate (choice of meat, side of rice, side of beans, salad and five corn tortillas, designed to be a “make your own taco” plate) and said under his breath, simply, “Wow.”