By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
Are you hankering for a bracing bowl of garlicky menudo, thick with pozole puffs and tripe, and sparkling with fresh-squeezed lime? Do you like your burrito festooned with bright-colored pico de gallo that packs lip-searing jalapeño bite? How about a spill of smoky green chile to smother a pair of cheese-stuffed rolled enchiladas? Perhaps you’d like to stock up on warm flour tortillas as they come sliding off the press at a storefront grocery where the shelves are stocked with fresh and dried chiles, marranitos (gingerbread cookies shaped like pigs), and the sugar-dusted fried-dough circles called buñuelos. You don’t need a passport to satisfy these cravings. All you have to do is get yourself to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, a remote Great Plains town with 15,000 citizens and dozens of Mexican restaurants, markets, and bakeries.
Located in the panhandle at the northwest corner of the state, Scottsbluff was named for Hiram Scott, a fur trader who died near the huge sandstone bluff that Plains Indians knew as Me-a-pa-te (“hill that is hard to go around”) and that pioneers along the old Oregon Trail referred to as the Nebraska Gibraltar. Today the town is anchored by the tall silos of the Western Sugar Cooperative processing plant and surrounded by the beet fields that have drawn Chicano and Mexican field hands from Texas and south of the border since the early 1900s. The restaurants established by migrants who settled in the area, as well as by their children and grandchildren, make Scotts Bluff County a fabulous destination for travelers in search of a noncorporate dining experience that sings of local character.
If you are passing through and in a hurry (not likely, since Scottsbluff isn’t on the way to anywhere), you needn’t leave your car to taste what’s good. Taco Town (whose sign boasts “We’re the Tac-O the Town!”) does have indoor seating and has been a favorite gathering place for nearly 40 years, but many customers simply drive through and pick up food at the window—just as one would do at any run-of-the-mill Taco Bell. But there’s nothing humdrum about Taco Town’s food. There are plates of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos—for $6.75 you can have a combo meal with all of the above plus rice and beans—and pork chili is sold by the pint and the quart. The taco is a simple delight, its earthy corn shell audibly crisp but pliable enough that it doesn’t shatter, loaded with a heap of ground-beef filling that is creamy, rich, and peppery. Each taco comes wrapped in paper that is twisted tight at both ends to keep it secure until you’ve found a parking place and are ready to unwrap it and dine off the dashboard.
Rosita’s looks like a lot of other Mexican cafés in western towns: a colorful parrot tapestry and the “Great Chile Poster” on display, overhead fans with blades in the shape of chiles, and a television playing in a wall nook. Unlike Taco Town, it offers no quick service. In fact, its menu warns that “sometimes a wait of one hour or longer is common.” That is because every dish is made to order, even the corn chips—particularly the corn chips. And amazing chips they are, nearly as three-dimensional as a sopaipilla, fried so they puff up and become airy triangles with fragile skin. These are not munchies to be idly eaten while doing something else. Although they are actually not much larger than an ordinary flat chip, each one is a piece of food to ponder and extol. An order arrives almost too hot to handle; they come plain or, as the foundation for the house specialty called panchos, topped with frijoles, melted cheese, guacamole, and jalapeños. Panchos are like nachos, but the chips’ refined texture and their perfect poise between breakable and bendable make them far more satisfying than mere bar grub.
The same quick-fry technique makes Rosita’s taco shells an ideal crisp-but-chewy wrap for beef or chicken with piles of garnishes; flat tostadas are made the same way; and even Rosita’s original taco salad includes the fine, fluffy chips. Rosemary Florez-Lerma, whose mother-in-law, Margarita Lerma, started the restaurant 40 years ago in the town of Lyman (25 miles away), told us that the extraordinary chips and shells are definitely Rosita’s signature (so special, in fact, that they’ve been trademarked), but they are also her Achilles’ heel when it comes to catering. They cannot be made in advance or prepared in bulk.
Fresh out of the oil, they are fantastically hot and flaky—particularly wonderful when used to scoop up cool dabs of the kitchen’s weighty guacamole. After ten minutes, the chips are still warm and beginning to develop a sturdier texture. But as they cool they lose their edge. That is one reason why dining at Rosita’s can take time, especially when the place is crowded and the kitchen gets backed up. You wouldn’t want these beauties lolling under a heat lamp.
Florez-Lerma credits her mother-in-law with the recipes that make Rosita’s stand out in an area where so many places have similar menus. The cinnabar-red salsa that should be ordered to start every meal and the stunning pico de gallo that adds eye-opening wallop to any dish are especially memorable. Rosemary’s daughter Selina, who is the family historian, told us that her grandmother invented the special way of cooking tortilla chips back at the restaurant in Lyman, where she was the one person working in the kitchen and there was just one server up front. Tortillas normally take time and attention to slow-cook on a griddle, so, for the sake of efficiency, Margarita Lerma took them straight from the press and tossed them into a kettle of hot oil. They cooked almost instantly and emerged unique. “It was a practical thing to do,” Selina says. “And it became the happy accident of our homemade history.”