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La Rosa, an Iowa Classic


People wait in long lines at La Rosa for holiday tamales. La Rosa, 2312 Forest Ave., 255-9520, open Wednesday - Monday 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.

People wait in long lines at La Rosa for holiday tamales. La Rosa, 2312 Forest Ave., 255-9520, open Wednesday – Monday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.

La Rosa opened 10 years ago. Rosa Martinez was a already a local legend then, first for selling tamales in the parking lot of the original La Tapatia Tienda, then for vending homemade chicken dinners in parking lots of Hispanic businesses. 

From the beginning, visits to La Rosa were more like visiting someone’s home than her restaurant. Guests watched as Rosa and her husband Noe Ruiz tended to them as well as their own children. Out of respect, Rosa would become Dona Rosa to many. In her comprehensive, bilingual memory she recalled exactly what guests had ordered on previous visits, no matter how many years had passed. She always seemed to be making something new that she wanted customers to try. One literary friend compared her to characters from the magical realist novels of Jorge Amado, whose heroines summon the better angels of our being through cooking.

The legend grew. Rosa commissioned a Los Angeles muralist to cover her building with animated foods. Despite hundreds of signatures of support, and not a single complaint, the city then forced her to paint over every part of the mural except for a single, inedible rose. She also became the Hispanic queen of the holidays. On Christmas eves, customers would form a block-long line at her door to retrieve tamale reservations. Those stuffed corn meal treats became border-crossing heirlooms. Rosa’s family came from Gomez Farias in Michoacan, a town once surrounded by cornfields and rich in tamale tradition. After the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, cheap American corn was imported and flowers were grown in its place.

The last three years were harder for Rosa and Noe. Carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to stop hand-making tortillas, except on special occasions. Taco trucks cut into their business.

“Lots of customers don’t want to come indoors with dirty boots,” Rosa explained.

Others said that employers had cut lunch breaks down to encourage employees to go for faster food.

Last Sept. 18, in a sudden, unimaginable moment, Dona Rosa’s world slipped its axis. Noe died of a heart attack while remodeling a house by himself. Rosa’s grief was as epic as that of characters from Emily Brontë or Isabella Allende. As she recalled that day recently, her memory was punctuated with precise recollections of passing time — four-and-a-half hours between the last time she saw Noe alive and the moment she discovered his cold body on a bathroom floor; two minutes between calling for help and hearing any voice; 10 minutes before any help arrived; three months before she even remotely felt like herself again. She dwelled on mysteries. Why did she playfully tip-toe into the house to surprise him that day? Why did he drink an energy drink? He never did that. How could he die just an hour or so after a doctor’s appointment? Why were they too busy to have lunch together?

For months she did not think she could ever reopen a restaurant so full of Noe’s spirit. She even sold it once, but that deal fell apart while she was spreading his ashes in Guanajuato. Supportive family kept encouraging her to reopen, though.

With lots of family, including several children that customers had watched grow up, Rosa returned to her kitchen on the last weekend in April. She even pressed her own fresh, thick tortillas for the occasion. There were new, off-the-menu specials — birria made with beef, guajillos and New Mexican chiles; and catfish soup. Hand-cut steaks, freshly made salsas, seafood stews, menudo, stem-on chiles rellenos, enchiladas, gorditas, tortas, burritos and tacos with multiple choices of protein complemented the specialties. 

Restored magic boosted the spirits of customers. So let it be with Dona Rosa. CV

Side Dishes Roberts Dairy switched to the Hiland Dairy label… Stephen Collins opened E.P.True Burger Café in West Des Moines.

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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