Restaurant owners bring authenticity to C-U


Photo courtesy of Magaly Avila

Dining area of La Bahía Grill, located on Church Street, displays colorful decorations that brightens the mood of the restaurant.

By Kylie Corral, Assistant buzz Editor

Hispanic Heritage Month has rolled around again spotlighting everything from cultural traditions, organizations, ideas and more. Food has its own spot within Hispanic communities, making significant contributions in places like Champaign-Urbana.

Michelle Patiño-Flores, graduate student studying anthropology, researches and collaborates with Cuban artists based in Havana and the Diaspora. She also has an interest in food culture.

Patiño-Flores said when she was an undergraduate at the University, she went through a lot emotionally during her senior year. She began cooking more for herself to cope with the anxiety that came with graduation and life after college.

“I didn’t really think of them as recipes, just meals that my grandma cooked while I was growing up,” she said. “So I would call them (my mom and grandma) super frequently, and it became more than a little hobby because I became interested in how my grandma would describe certain things … and it’s like, ‘What do you mean a little bit?’ and she’d be like, ‘You’ll just know when it’s right.’”

When she started studying anthropology after getting her linguistics degree as an undergraduate, Patiño-Flores said she found it interesting how people described their world in different ways. That’s what led her to collect what she calls “food writing.”

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“I think that’s what I prefer to call it, ‘food writing,’ where we have people in our audience send in recipes and stories about their recipes — things like that,” Patiño-Flores said. “Then, we published that, we have that as another content that we can share with each other.”

She said having Hispanic food represented in C-U was significant because when people value food from another’s culture, those who cultivate that culture are valued, too. She believes Hispanic restaurants are doing important work, helping create comfortable and welcoming communities.

“I think food or culture is such an interesting word,” Patiño-Flores said. “Food is essential — it’s what keeps people alive on a very basic level. So, I think that it can be a source of reconnecting with your identity or your family history, and that’s really powerful for self-esteem, for building your own character and connecting to your loved ones. So in that sense, it’s crucial.”

Eric Leonor, owner of Fernando’s food truck in C-U, said he decided to open the food truck after working in  restaurants in the C-U community. 

For Leonor, Fernando’s is a restaurant that tries to offer authentic Hispanic food to people in C-U, adding that they strive to do the best for customers from everywhere.

“First of all, we do try to offer something authentic because many people expect really high-quality Mexican food, and it’s not easy to find,” he said. “I can tell you my food is one of the greatest for many people. I’m trying to do my best and offer everyone something they can enjoy with their family.”

He added that C-U is a beautiful community for him and his business because of all the diversity it contains.

“All the diversity of food, restaurants and cultures — I love any kind of food, and I’m not sure how many we have now, but I see so many kinds of food (everyone) has to offer,” he said.

Mauricio Contreras, owner of La Mixteca, has been in C-U since moving  from Indiana five years ago. He said La Mixteca focuses on making authentic Hispanic dishes from scratch.

“We follow my recipes from my farm and from my grandma, and we are trying to make everything from scratch,” Contreras said. “So that’s the reason our food takes more time than other places.”

Contreras said there can be a lot of competition among restaurants in Champaign-Urbana, with the University campus being so close. He urged people to support locally-owned restaurants.

“We asked the people to support more local business instead of big chains or big corporations,” he said. “There are big companies that have a lot of budget money for support, but it’s really hard for us.”

Magaly Avila and Leonel Carmona are the owners of La Bahía Grill. Avila said she’s happy with all the support  she’s received from the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities in C-U.

“It feels great to be able to represent a different part of our Mexican culture through the cuisine we offer at our restaurant,” Avila said. “Mexico is amazing, and there’s a variety of dishes from our culture that this community is not familiar with, so bringing in a little more of that here has been one of our goals from the beginning. It’s also just special that we get to not only celebrate our culture in this community, but also help educate others through our food.”

She said her favorite thing about C-U is that its restaurant community is just as diverse as the people who live here, meaning there is always great food from different parts of the world.

“I think there are a lot of people in search of different and authentic Mexican food, and I’m glad we can provide that to our community,” Avila said. “This whole process has been a learning experience since this is our first and only restaurant. So, there are many challenges that come with that, but we have found great people in the community that want to see us succeed and have guided us as we navigate through this new journey.”


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