Dec. 23 2008 12:00 AM

Couple move authentic Mexican restaurant 2,300 miles


It’s going to be chilly this week in Escondido, Calif., with lows all the way down to the lower 40s. Not cold enough for snow, of course, but folks in the San Diego suburb will be breaking out their lightweight jackets for sure.

Meanwhile, in nearby Williamston, the white stuff covers nearly every non-traversable surface, parkas and mukluks are a way of life, and a family of Southern California natives is adjusting to life in a much colder climate. “I’d only been to Michigan in the winter once before, but my husband had never seen snow at all,” Teresa Rodriguez says. “He was in awe, pointing at it and just saying, ‘Look at it!’ over and over.”

He’d better get used to it. Rodriguez and her husband, Jose, schlepped three kids here in October to open El Indio de Tijuana, a traditional Mexican restaurant in downtown Williamston. (A fourth child and Teresa’s Rodriguez’s mother will arrive later this week.) The Rodriguezes owned and operated two Mexican restaurants, also named “El Indio de Tijuana,” back home before an opportunity came up to take over the old Westside Deli building some 2,200 miles to the northeast. The inevitable question is: why? “People think we’re crazy,” Teresa Rodriguez says. “But we came here because this area needed to know what good Mexican food tastes like.”

Seems like a long way for an object lesson. The truth is, Rodriguez says one of the couple’s restaurants wasn’t doing that well, so they decided to close it and let family take over the other one. Her sister-in-law, who had been working at Westside Deli, mentioned the dearth of good Mexican food in the area and suggested Teresa and Jose check the place out. Rodriguez says she and the building’s owner called each other back and forth for two months, she saw some pictures, did some praying, and then it just hit her. “One morning I just woke up and said, ‘Let’s go,’” she says. “We packed up a U-Haul, and one month later we were here.”

After a couple months of snafus — seemingly endless inspections and a burglary that wiped out all their food and their sound system and destroyed their register -— El Indio opened for business to immediate success. The name of the restaurant comes from the cultural traditions of Mexican Indians, El Indio, just south of the border in Tijuana, Mexico, which is only about an hour’s drive from Escondido.

Rodriguez says even without a name out front — the sign arrived two weeks later — there were lines of people from day one who had heard about this El Indio place. “People are coming from Okemos, Lansing, Fowlerville, all over,” Rodriguez says. “The word is out. I feel sorry for other Mexican restaurants. We weren’t crazy to come here. I’ve got confidence in my food.”

As if on cue, out comes the Carne Esada Plate ($6.29), a traditional grilled steak dish that comes with refried beans, rice, salsa fresca (pico de gallo), avocado slices and a choice of flour or corn tortillas. The steak is so tender you would think it was marinated, but Rodriguez says it’s her husband’s skill in the kitchen that gives it that texture. She won’t give any details about what’s in these dishes, but she assures these are all natural, fresh ingredients, and that’s where the difference lies. On weekends, Jose Rodriguez has more time to whip up his soon-to-be-famous Enchiladas and Tamales ($5.99). The thick, steam-cooked corn dough is just the thing for a bitter cold weekend meal. The Burritos ($4.99), meanwhile, come rolled in a gargantuan 14-inch tortilla, and can be made with chicken, fish, shredded beef or ground beef, as well as the traditional lettuce/cheese/tomato fillings. Those puppies weigh in at over a pound and a half, so bring your appetite.

Rodriguez and her husband have plans to use this restaurant as a template for creating a chain of taco stands across mid-Michigan and perhaps beyond. Along with the chain, they’re planning on some enhancements to the 2,000-square-foot restaurant, which right now accommodates about a dozen people. Teresa Rodriguez says she wants to add seats and expand the rear patio in the spring, and she would love to add a delivery service and a liquor license, so her customers can enjoy a nice, cool cerveza with their sopas.

Rodriguez says her husband is looking for experienced line cooks to help in the kitchen; for now, Jose is working 17 hours a day. If you’ve got skills, give them a call. Relocation not required.

El Indio de Tijuana, 122 W. Grand River Ave., Williamston. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily. (517) 655-1417.