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Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

Emilio’s taste of Mexico

Emilio, Heriberto, and Rosa Lemeli
Nick Steinkamp

"In Mexico, the men never touch the kitchen," says Emilio Lomeli, laughing. "It would be considered a women's place."

Lomeli is sitting in Emilio's Mexican Food, his restaurant in downtown Springfield. He's dressed in a white apron, explaining how U.S. restaurants differ from those in Mexico. Lomeli, who spends most of his 12-hour workdays over a grill, says he would probably not be a cook if he were still living in Mexico.

And that's not the only thing that would be different. Lomeli, now 52, left his hometown near Guadalajara at age 13 to find work in the U.S. His plan was to make enough money to start a life with his childhood sweetheart, Rosa. He kept his promise and returned home at age 19 to marry her. The couple then moved to California, where both worked for various chain restaurants. The self-taught chefs blended what they learned while working for others with their own flair for cooking and developed their own recipes. They later moved to Iowa, where they owned and operated two restaurants and also sold homemade burritos to a chain of grocery stores. Someone passing through town one day suggested that they should open a restaurant in Springfield, Illinois--a town they had never heard of. But they later moved here and worked for Coney Island for three years. When a storefront became available downtown, they jumped at the chance to open their own place and soon purchased the building next door, more than doubling the original space at 315 E. Monroe.

Today the couple, who do all of their own cooking, serve up versions of huevos rancheros, omelets, chili rellenos, and burritos for breakfast; seven kinds of fajitas, including cactus; and a variety of dinners, such as chalupas, tamales, carnitas, and taco salads. It's truly a family business--their main help is provided by their two sons, Heriberto and Emilio Jr. And their customers are also treated like family. Lomeli can quickly name the groups of co-workers who come in once a week and what they order. Since many order the same meal every time they visit, Lomeli can see them in line and have their order ready by the time they reach the counter to pay.

"You have to love cooking," Rosa says. "We make everything ourselves. Nobody else cooks but us."

"We don't open cans," Emilio adds, referring to the fact that all their produce is fresh, not prepared or pre-packaged. He cooks extra portions, so he can give customers samples before ordering.

The couple also uses fresh spices imported from Mexico. "If you put Mexican spices side-by-side with American spices, you can't even smell the American spices," Emilio says. And these spices are chopped on the spot, not powdered. One of Lomeli's favorite dishes is chili rellenos because "we make it the way we make it in Mexico." Sometimes authentic Mexican cuisine can be surprising to those who have only tasted Americanized versions. For instance, Emilio's shrimp cocktail, or coctel de camaron, has fresh shrimp swimming in a sweet salsa with avocado, tomatoes, onion, and cilantro.

Besides not seeing many men behind the stoves, what else is different about Mexican restaurants back home? What about the complimentary tortilla chips and salsa that most places here serve to customers before a meal? Lomeli and his wife shake their heads. "They don't do that in Mexico," he says. But they do it at Emilio's--customers dish up their own at a table near the door. The Lomelis know where they live: To make everyone happy, they also serve a smattering of "American" dishes, like hamburgers, biscuits and gravy, grilled cheese, and oatmeal.

Emilio's Mexican Food is at 310 E. Monroe in Springfield (217-523-7358). Fax orders are accepted at 217-523-7359. Hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.


(Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer)

1 lb. fresh fish, finely chopped (mackerel, tuna, moonfish, barracuda, mahi, or walleye)
1 to 2 chili serrano, minced
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup white onion, minced
3 teaspoons cilantro, coarsely chopped
Juice from 8 to 10 limes
2 teaspoons salt

In a large non-reactive bowl, combine all ingredients and let sit 30 to 45 minutes or until fish is opaque and "cooked." Garnish with additional lime wedges and serve with tostadas, salsa, and avocado.


Pico de Gallo

3 medium tomatoes, finely diced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 jalapeno

Toss all ingredients together in a small mixing bowl and let stand for about 30 minutes to blend the flavors.

Recipes courtesy of Emilio's Mexican Food

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