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This week, I sat down with Marcos Salim Heredia, owner of the new Carmelita’s Taqueria (located at 34255 PCH), and he shared the remarkable origins of his family’s culinary journey, his unique cultural perspective and some of Chef Luis Cisneros’ extraordinary food. This Dana Point location is a sister location, of sorts, to its excellent full-service restaurant, Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico in Laguna Beach.

The story begins in 1938, with Heredia’s grandmother, Maria Carmen Gamez Llamas, on a train from Guadalajara to California, as part of the U.S. government’s Bracero program, later known as the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. On that train, 14-year-old Carmelita met her future husband, Alberto Heredia. They started working together in Southern California, married five years later, and built their family as they migrated north, eventually settling in Old Roseville, outside Sacramento. The Heredias and their six children were literally living out of a boxcar, when Alberto was severely injured while working for Union Pacific Railroad. Remarkably, he was given a $10,000 disability settlement, with which he intended to return to Mexico. Carmelita felt they had come too far to return to Mexico, so she gambled on herself, and opened a restaurant while Alberto was in the hospital recovering! That original Carmelita’s still operates today, directly across the street from where Alberto had fractured his spine.

That tenacity required to make dreams come true and the pride in one’s culture is also evident in Carmelita’s grandson, Marcos, and his team. When you walk into Carmelita’s Taqueria, your cultural experience begins. The open kitchen allows the customer to see their meal being crafted from scratch. You see the al pastor meat spinning vertically, the sauces simmering and the fire crackling from the wood-chip burning oven for al carbon-style cooking. Every tortilla is pressed right in front of you as you order, and the authentic menu features only the freshest organic local produce. Heck, the organic blue corn masa for the tortillas is sourced directly from a trusted farmer in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico. Try the al pastor and skirt steak tacos, the avocado salad and spiced cauliflower.

Marcos Heredia shared, “It was important to make sure that we stood apart, sharing our traditions, techniques and culture that have been passed down in my family for generations. The food is a testament to itself.”

And a special Dana Point ROCKS: Culinary Corner shout-out goes out to Daniel and Brenda Castillo and their team at Heritage Barbeque in San Juan Capistrano, with big congratulations on their one-year anniversary. Support your local pitmaster! More info: heritagecraftbbq.com

Anthony Small is Executive Director and co-founder of Music Preserves Foundation, a local musician and former City of Dana Point Arts and Culture Commissioner. Small and his family have lived in Dana Point for 23 years.

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