La Tarasca has been providing authentic Mexican food to Lewis County for more than 20 years. It’s a testament to the persistence of the Ayala family, who have been part of the community for more than 50 years.
“Manuel, my dad, came here from the state of Michoacán in West Central Mexico in the mid-’60s and established the family in Rochester, and then sent for Margarita, my mom, and then later on he sent for us, and we all became citizens around 1974,” says Juan Ayala, one of eight siblings who helps run the restaurant. While working on private farms in the area, Margarita prepared dishes for their employers. “My mom always cooked for her boss, and he would say that they should open a restaurant, but at the time, you couldn’t get the ingredients.”
The idea of opening a Mexican restaurant returned many years later, at Juan’s urging. “I said to her ‘what if I found a place?’ and I don’t know if she was joking or not, but she agreed, and it gave me an incentive to start looking.” Juan eventually came across their current location on Centralia’s Main Street. After completing some repairs, the Ayala family opened their doors at the beginning of 1997.
One major roadblock was convincing potential financers that La Tarasca was different from the other restaurants in Centralia. “We couldn’t get a loan, because there were too many Mexican restaurants, even though my mom would tell the banks that we are different, that it’s very authentic.” Despite this setback, the Ayala family knew their restaurant would attract a significant and loyal contingent within the area. “We knew we had the Hispanic community, because this is what they grew up with.”
“The first year was really tough, but then people who have been abroad started coming in, and then outside we would see a Mercedes Benz or a BMW, and college students would start showing up, and we were getting busier and busier. Now, we draw everybody from Portland to Seattle, and on a Friday or Saturday night, we can expect 90 percent of the crowd to be from out-of-town.”
The presence of social media and food/travel websites have boosted La Tarasca’s profile to an audience that stretches beyond the Pacific Northwest, and the reviews section on Facebook, Yelp and TripAdvisor are filled with high rankings and positive comments from a wide variety of food enthusiasts.
According to Juan, the meals that the first-time customers rave about in person and the regulars come back for are the slow-cooked and basted carnitas, the pozole, the chicken in chili guajillo sauce (only available on Thursdays and recommended for people who like their entrees spicy), and the chile rellenos, which the staff prepares with meticulous detail. “The oil can’t be too hot or too cold, and you’ve got to mix the egg right, or otherwise it gets runny and falls off.”
For the handmade corn tortillas, which receive just as much acclaim as the main menu items, there isn’t a heavily guarded recipe or special technique involved in the preparation. “It’s very simple. Here’s where the secret is – you have to play with the heat. The masa can’t be really dry or really wet, and it also has to do with heat. My mom has been making tortillas since she was nine, and she could have the whole griddle full of tortillas and nothing would faze her.”
The traditional non-alcoholic Mexican beverages are homemade as well, and created with the same precision and instinct as the entrees and tortillas. Mercedes Zaragoza, the eldest daughter of the Ayala family, is eager to show the actual legumes, plants, nuts and other ingredients that they use to prepare their hibiscus tea, tamarindo and horchata.
“Now, everywhere you go, they make it from a package,” says Mercedes. “We don’t.” While she is unable to select a favorite beverage (“It’s like having three children”), Mercedes states that the hibiscus, served cold and made with actual calyces from the Hibiscus sabdariffa flower, is the most popular drink with the customers.
Another (literal) sign that La Tarasca is set on maintaining the traditional Mexican dining experience: the “No chips & salsa” notices that adorn the menu and front door. Juan states that the decision has to do with their commitment to keep everything homemade and handmade, as well as for customers to thoroughly enjoy the main courses once the plates arrive on the table.
“A year and a half in, I suggested to my mom that maybe we should serve chips and salsa, and she says ‘no, I don’t know how to make them from scratch, and I don’t understand how that works, because by the time you eat them, you can’t taste the real food – you’re full.”
As La Tarasca’s profile continues to grow, the Ayala family feels blessed that they’ve been able to fulfill their goals, and that the community has reacted positively to their restaurant. As with any locally owned business, challenges can occur on a regular basis.
“We’re doing baby steps,” says Mercedes. “When you do everything so authentic from scratch, it takes a lot of labor.”
Juan agrees. “That’s one thing my mom and dad told us – you’ve got to work hard for what you have. For the first two years, none of us got paid – all the money went to the staff and bills. We eventually paid off a 30-year contract (for the property) in four years.”
“It’s amazing that my mother always had a plan, not having an education, being from where we come from and all that, she just knew what her goal was. Amazing woman – she’s the cornerstone of our family.”
La Tarasca is located on 1001 W. Main Street. For hours and other information, call them at 360-736-7756 or visit their Facebook page.