by Pam Vukelic

Tortillas, sopes, tamales, tomatillo salsa, tacos, menudo… if these food items are not regularly appearing on your dinner table at home, they should be. And, getting them there has just become much easier thanks to the opening of La Tejana Mexican Market at the corner of Boulevard and Fourteenth Street in Bismarck.

Elma (left) and Libby

Elma (left) and Libby

Recognizing a need for a Mexican market, sisters Libby Vargas and Elma Rodriguez have opened La Tejana to the delight of local residents with a craving for Tex-Mex cuisine. The market shelves are stocked with numerous spices, dried chiles, and other ingredients prevalent in your favorite recipes. You’ll find dried hibiscus flowers, tostados, queso fresco, chorizo, masa harina, beans, hominy, tomatillos and more. And if you don’t find what you are looking for, Elma says they are happy to try to locate it for you so they can carry it. Let them know the brand name you prefer and the item you are looking for; they will take it from there.

Libby and Elma have lived in Bismarck for about a year-and-a-half and ten years respectively, and both of them had lived in Fargo before that. Coming originally from Texas, Elma says their food is not so much traditional Mexican as it is Tex-Mex. But don’t be surprised to see their mother, Emma, who is from Mexico, at work in the kitchen hand pressing sopes or stirring a huge vat of tomatillos that will become salsa. Having numerous other family members help out has helped to overcome the worker shortage. Elma focuses her energy on the “business” end of things and for the most part stays in the market and restaurant part of the establishment. Libby is running things in the kitchen.

Although the original intent of the two sisters was to focus their energy on providing a local market, it quickly became apparent to them that their customers are clamoring for what a restaurant can offer. They offer a meal, one example would be tacos, rice and salad, and give you the freedom to choose the meat you prefer. One of the things that has been surprising to them is the demand for some of the more unusual food items – menudo, beef cheeks, and tongue, which Libby cooks to perfection.

The tamales offered are so popular you should call in your order a few days ahead of time to ensure they will be available. I can attest to how tasty the spinach and cheese tamales are; with a dose of tomatillo salsa they’re perfect for an appetizer or part of your main meal. I brought mine home to eat and Elma cautioned me to not eat the corn husks! I was reminded of the mishap involving presidential candidate Gerald Ford who had no such knowledge and attempted to eat the whole thing. Some suggest the “Great Tamale Incident,” at the Alamo, was important in allowing Jimmy Carter to carry Texas and thus narrowly ascend to the presidency in 1976.

Making sopes

Making sopes

Sopes served by La Tejana were new to me. Prepare a fairly thick facsimile of a corn tortilla using masa harina and grill until slightly golden. While still warm use your fingers to make indentations throughout the surface, making it look a bit like a waffle. Top with chorizo, queso fresco, some shredded lettuce, and your favorite salsa and you have what amounts to a Mexican pizza. Delicious!! The corn flavor really comes through in the sopes and the indentations help to hold everything in place. If you’re fortunate, you will find a bag of sopes in the cooler at La Tejana to take home and enjoy.

A variety of fresh tortillas are also available for purchase, but, as good as they are, they take a back seat to the delicious desserts prepared by Libby. Tres Leches cake, so moist and rich, and Choco Flan – as the saying goes, to die for!

You would surely enjoy a cup of Mexican hot chocolate on one of these cold winter days. Or, try a refreshing flavored water made on the premises. Flavors of various fruits (e.g., kiwi, watermelon, pineapple) are infused in traditional Mexican style. The dried hibiscus flowers provide another option for an icy sweet drink.

For a quick dessert at home, pick up a bottle of Chamoy to drizzle over a cut-up apple. Sprinkle a little Tajin seasoning over the top to give it a bit of a kick and you have not only a beautiful, vibrant dish, but a very tasty eclectic mix of flavors that took two minutes to prepare!

I encourage you to stop by La Tejana, to stock your pantry with some hard-to-find groceries or sate your appetite in their seating area. But I think you will get at least as much pleasure from your personal interaction with Elma or Libby who are masters of hospitality and exude a familial warmth that just appears to come naturally. It is no surprise to me that their new customers have quickly become regulars and that the cluster of small tables seems to have already morphed into a community center. La Tejana is a welcome addition to Bismarck.

Due to the big demand for carry-out items such as tamales and tortillas, there are some days the kitchen will be closed for restaurant orders. Call 258-1560 for more information. La Tejana is located at1320 East Boulevard Avenue.