BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
They say that running a restaurant is a young person’s game, but while it is true that the person technically in charge at Juannita’s, the new Mexican restaurant in the cheerful yellow building at 620 W. Kirkwood, is 23-year-old Salvador Marquez Cuahuizo, it is his 76-year-old grandmother Juanita Cuahuizo who puts in long days in the kitchen.
Juanita is a tiny woman with a beautiful lined face and a firm, friendly handshake that belies her years. She has been cooking all her life, learning to make fresh tortillas, tamales, and chile rellenos from her mother in Mexico, catering weddings and other special occasions for family and friends in the United States, and now supervising and tasting the food in the family restaurant that bears a variation of her name.
Juannita’s has a full and eclectic menu that includes the dishes American devotees of Mexican restaurants have come to expect, like burritos, nachos, and quesadillas, but also highlights the specialties of the family’s home state of Puebla, all made from scratch. Satisfy your craving for complexity and richness with the mole poblano, a chicken dish in a sweet dark sauce made from simmering zesty chilies with mellow chocolate. Or try the delicious molotes, a popular Mexican street food. These fried ovals of masa (corn) dough are stuffed with mashed potatoes (fabulous!), cheese with jalapeños, or spicy chicken, and eaten with salsa.
The soups at Juannita’s are big bowls of savory goodness; the red pozole with chicken and hominy is superb, garnished with lime, cilantro, and onion. The Mexican salad is an unusual but lovely combination of lettuce and grilled cactus. Dress it with green salsa! Also on the menu are a selection of tortas—Mexican sandwiches layered with meat, avocado, grilled chilies, and mayo—and a taqueria section, featuring fresh and wonderful homemade tortillas filled with pork in salsa verde, shredded beef or beef tongue, chorizo with potato, and grilled chicken.
The Marquez Cuahuizo family has been in this country for years, settling in Indiana when Letisia, Salvador’s little sister, now 18 and a waitress at Juannita’s, needed treatment for leukemia at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Juanita sold tamales to a local Mexican restaurant, then started her own catering business. The family saved and finally pooled their resources to open the restaurant. Juanita, her daughter Carmen (mom to Salvador and Letisia), and various aunts and cousins all work there. Says Salvador, “If I have this family that’s willing to work together, if you have that back- up, why wouldn’t you use it? If we can make a little money, later on we can all share it. That’s the way it was in Mexico…doing something we like with the ones that we love.”