WILMINGTON — Last weekend the Villaseñor brothers opened a second Los Portales Taqueria restaurant, further expanding their authentic Mexican street food business in Wilmington.
This follows a 2018 launch of Tequila Comida and Cantina, which offers a mix of street food and more sophisticated dishes — cuisine that Ramón Villaseñor calls “contemporáneo.”
But the second Los Portales restaurant, located near Walmart at the Market and College junction, will offer the same menu as the original location, albeit in a larger, more modern space and with more margarita and draft beer options.
Miguel Villaseñor, the younger of the two, said they opened the second location because the original restaurant on Kerr Avenue was constantly packed to the brim. And more and more non-Latinos were coming to eat authentic Mexican tacos and experience authentic Mexican culture — a place where fútbol dominates the televisions, Latino music plays from the speakers, and orders are yelled out in Spanish.
“They get scared when they first walk into a place where they only see Latinos,” he said of non-Latino customers who first visit the restaurant. “Everything is spoken in Spanish. But when they try the food they like it, so they keep coming back. But they come back because of our food and because they want to experience something different.”
He said many families even bring their children to Los Portales to compliment their Spanish classes and become familiar with ordering their food in Spanish. He estimated 95 percent of their customers were Latino when they first opened in 2006; now, he thought that number had dropped to 80 percent.
Above, Ramón Villaseñor shows how the traditional huarache is prepared. If you are having issues watching the video, use the link here.
No cheese dip and chimmichangas
The four Villaseñor siblings grew up helping their father run his street taco stand in Degollado, a small town in central Mexico. Ramón and Miguel Villaseñor migrated to Wilmington in the mid-nineties, where they began washing dishes and gradually learned how a restaurant is managed.
Now their brother and sister run the family ranch in Degollado, importing blueberries to California, while Ramón and Miguel keep expanding their restaurant business throughout Wilmington. Miguel sticks more to the finances while managing Los Portales Supermarket, across the street from the original restaurant. His brother, who recently completed the culinary program at Cape Fear Community College, runs the kitchens at the three restaurants.
For the brothers, the business is a way to carry on the legacy of their father, Enrique Villaseñor, who died nearly a decade ago. A portrait of Enrique hangs behind the cashier, while photographs of street food vendors from their hometown are hung throughout the restaurant. A large photograph of Degollado’s main square sits beside the bar.
“Most of the salsas came from our father, and the way we cook the meat we learned from him,” Ramón Villaseñor said. “We keep the family traditions going.”
Their growing business also gives them opportunities to serve true Mexican street food to people who are more familiar with Americanized ‘Tex-Mex’ cuisine that dominates the market. They call it ‘Mexicano auténtico.’
“These days many Americans ask for cheese dip and chimmichangas. They want Tex-Mex,” Miguel Villaseñor said. “And we tell them, ‘No, we don’t have that. We have street food.’ So they get a little disappointed, but when they try it they love it.”
He described how they’ve blended different recipes and traditions from across Mexico — birria stew made with goat meat or mutton from Jalisco (also famous for its tequila), huarache and sope from Oaxaca, and fish plates in Veracruz — while adapting to modern tastes.
“Most of our customers say, ‘I’ve been missing this, because this is the real taqueria.’ And they seem to understand the difference between authentic and Americanized food,” Ramón Villaseñor said.
The new Los Portales Taqueria is located at 29 Van Campen Blvd., Suite 109.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815