Before leaving Fresno, California, and going to Nebraska City for my four-week artist residency, I research restaurants near the center. Eating out during a residency is precarious for me, as most residences are in small, white, conservative towns.
I find Tacos El Pueblito, a Mexican restaurant in a hot pink building that opened in 2001.
On my first walk over, I see a hatch in the street and roses inside wagon wheels, the façade of a salvage shop that I wouldn’t dare go into. Parts of the roads are paved with brick, attracting small brown rabbits who are both delicate and wary of the steady stream of passing cars. The animals barely glance at me, but the townspeople do.
The restaurant is owned by a woman named Marta, who has a daughter with the same name. Always kind, when I go to the restaurant alone, they ask me where my friends are, the other artist residents. I order take-out and eat on the patio in my apartment at the center, the humidity folding over the arid familiarity of my valley home.
After my second visit to Tacos El Pueblito, I send my mother a picture of my tacos fritos. The rolled-up yellow corn tortillas are stuffed with seasoned ground beef mixed with tiny cubes of potato, and I will think about them often in the coming days.
There is a wash station with a basin-style sink and an oval-shaped mirror, and it has both the look of intimacy and sterility. I text my dad and ask him if he’s got his booster shot yet, and he says he got it two days ago. His oldest brother was twice vaccinated but still died last fall from Covid-19.
They play the food network on a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall next to an altar of the virgin Mary. I order a cheese enchilada and a pork tamale as if the world could stop now. The enchilada sauce is made with a darker chile, and the tamale meat is also. The masa is moist; my favorite part is that the leaf peels off with little effort.
The back part of the restaurant is sectioned off with saloon-style swing doors that remind me of the Red Wave Inn, a misnomer; it was a bar I frequented when I was in grad school and teaching English part-time for $426 a month.
There are daily specials, meaning Marta and Marta sell a la carte items for cheaper than they usually are. Teenage brown boys buy tamales and sometimes ice cream from a knee-deep freezer.
On my last day in Nebraska City, I go to Tacos El Pueblito right when it opens. I don’t tell Marta I’m going back to California. When she asks me what kind of chile I want, I only ask for the green.
Monique Quintana is a Xicana from Fresno, CA, and the author of Cenote City (Clash Books, 2019) and the chapbook My Favorite Sancho and Other Fairy Tales (Sword and Kettle Press, 2021). Her work has appeared in Pank, Wildness, Winter Tangerine, The Acentos Review, and other publications. You can find her book reviews and artist interviews at Luna Luna Magazine, where she is a contributing editor. Her writing has been supported by Yaddo, the Sundress Academy of the Arts, the Community of Writers, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. You can find her on Twitter at @quintanagothic and at moniquequintana.com