June 23 2010 12:00 AM

With prayer and family help, Virginia Valdez has turned a dream into reality


There’s a nice little Mexican place in Frandor. You know, That Little Mexican Place.

With a name that doubles as a catchphrase, That Little Mexican Place might stick in your mind before you go in, but once you’ve been there, you’ll likely remember it for other reasons.

Owner Virginia Valdez’s restaurant might be inconspicuous, wedged into a busy strip of stores with its hanging-banner signage, but her journey as a restaurateur deserves a spotlight.

Before her current venture, Valdez owned Niña’s Taco House, within a stone’s throw of her present site. Recently divorced and pregnant with her fifth child, Valdez was inspired to open her own Mexican restaurant — after she had been in a wheelchair for three years, battling multiple sclerosis. With no capital and bad credit, a place of her own seemed impossible. After some intense prayer and meditation, Valdez found what she was looking for.

“I saw a lease sign, looked in the window, and I claimed it as mine,” she said. Niña’s was born against all odds and did good business for a couple of years before the combined pressures of raising a young family and running a restaurant became too much. Valdez closed shop to raise her children: “I did what I had to do to be withthem,” she said.

But after finding Mr. Right and becoming engaged, taco slinging called to Valdez once again.

In a similar circumstance — no capital, shaky credit — Valdez assumed the lease of the former Quiznos in Frandor, and with her fiancé, mother and children (the only employees she has) That Little Mexican Place opened in March.

A fourth-generation Mexican-American, Valdez is proud of her heritage and strives to represent it in the food she makes. Nearly everything is homemade, including tortillas. Food is prepared daily, a detail important to Valdez.

“We don’t do too much in advance — otherwise it gets industrial,” she said. “People can tell the difference.”

When someone claims to have authentic Mexican tacos, ask them how they’re made. The American version of tacos is ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Think Taco Bell.

But if you want something you’d find south of the border, Valdez serves what you crave. Her tacos ($1.50) combine steak, chicken or ground beef (go for the steak) with cilantro and onions. Squeeze a wedge of lime and top it with a couple dollops of salsa (the hotter salsa verde is delicious) for the full effect.

Entomatadas ($6.99) sell well, too. Similar to enchiladas, the entomatadas contain shredded chicken wrapped in corn tortillas, smothered in a tomato-based sauce and crowned with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and crumbly cheese.

The difference between an enchilada and an entomatada is in the sauce, Valdez says. She claims others have tried to emulate her recipe, which combines fresh and dried chilies, but to no avail. “The secret is in the chilies,” she says.

You won’t find many other places, if any, in town selling elotes ($2), essentially a trumped-up corn-on-the-cob on a stick. The corn is steamed until tender, then coated with a lime-flavored mayonnaise-like spread and sprinkled with a biting chili powder. The contrast between the cool lime mayo and the heat of the chili is fantastic, and it’s complemented nicely by the mildly sweet base of corn.

Elotes are an idea Valdez gleaned from Grand Rapids, where taquerias (taco shops) provided her with insights into creating and tweaking her menu. She also gets guidance from her fiancé, Ariel Gonzalez, who hails from Mexico.

The desserts are authentic and homemade, too. Tres leches (“three milk,” $3) is a sponge cake that melts in your mouth. A traditional Mexican dessert, a cake is soaked with evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream, and somehow manages to avoid sogginess. Iced with a delicate creamy frosting and studded with strawberries, a slice of tres leches is a treat worth savoring as long as possible. Flan ($2) and arroz con leche (“rice with milk,” essentially rice pudding, $2) are made daily as well.

Homemade tamales start next week, and Valdez hopes to have a lunch buffet up and running within the next couple of months. She’s even considering a second location in the Meridian Mall.

Valdez prays often. When people tell her she’s crazy for starting a restaurant when so many others are closing, she has a pithy response: “I work on God’s economy, not people’s economy.”

Her success, though, has been built upon a bedrock of support from her family. Her mother and older children take orders and serve diners; her fiancé shows up at 5 a.m. to begin prepping for the day ahead; and her daughter-in-law, Riana Garza, has been working every single day since opening four months ago — oh, and she has a newborn of her own.

“(Garza) has encouraged me when it’s been difficult,” Valdez says, explaining how she has managed to raise a family while serving up great food. “She tells me, ‘If you can do it at home, you can do it here.’”

For Valdez, a mother’s work truly never ends.

That Little Mexican Place

310 N. Clippert, Suite 7, Lansing 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday (517) 333-8226 TO, D, $