Serving up breakfast just like grandma used to
For being the most important meal of the day, downtown Kalamazoo doesn’t have many breakfast options for hungry early birds.
So when you shuffle into La Familia Café like a zombie on a work-day morning, staring at their menu can be an existential dilemma.
“For us, the main thing is breakfast. There is no Mexican breakfast place in Kalamazoo,” said co-owner Dan Salas. “It’s a homestyle menu. Food like I like it.”
Having survived most of its existence during a global pandemic, La Familia, on W. Michigan Ave. between Park and Rose streets, has firmly joined Theo & Stacy’s and Studio Grill as a staple on this block-and-a-half stretch of breakfast fortune.
Salas’ grandmother’s take on the huevos rancheros quickly made it the frontrunner on this day.
There’s a square cut from the middle of the corn tortilla before it is placed on the grill. That’s where the eggs are cooked, then smothered by Ranchero Salsa. Next to it on the plate are beans and potatoes, substantial and properly seasoned, but relegated to watching the egg concoction disappear until it’s their turn to be eaten.
“That’s how I’ve always known huevos rancheros,” Salas said on a recent morning, Halloween decorations temporarily crowding out the familial décor that he and wife Ida have chosen for the café’s vibe.
I was craving some breakfast meat, but family friend and La Familia manager Jeff Kirk waived me off when I tried to get them to add it to the eggs as they fry in the tortilla. It might not cook right, and neither of us wanted to ruin the dish. So I ordered the sturdy, crispy bacon on the side.
The 10 breakfast options all have eggs, and range from tacos and burritos to scrambled with nopales, a type of edible cactus. An unofficial 11th is the breakfast torta that Kirk had the cooks put together a few days back and Salas said he still craves: sour cream and beans spread on either side of grilled telera bread encasing eggs scrambled with sausage and sautéed onions, jalapeños, and tomatoes.
“If it’s not on the menu, we’ll try to make it up for you,” he said.
Tuesday is the one day when breakfast time has light traffic, but the line can go out the door for the lunchtime taco specials.
“I hope you make some money,” Kirk says to the third-party delivery service worker picking up an order. “Hopefully,” they reply.
Delivery is only available in the morning, the kitchen swamped by the daily lunch rush, though you can call ahead for pick up until 3pm, when La Familia shuts down for the day. Until then, the entire menu is available – an overflowing breakfast quesadilla at noon for the hungover college student or a packed ground beef burrito grilled for the construction worker taking their lunch break just after the sun rises.
Chips of freshly cut-then-fried corn tortillas are brought out in red baskets, temporarily displayed in a clear case. They’ll soon be served with an easy-dipping red salsa (using tomatoes, Salas points, that are “the only canned product” they use in any recipe).
“Everything else is fresh cut and cooked,” Salas says, standing near the “Best Overall” trophy La Familia won at the 2021 Downtown Kalamazoo Salsa Cook-Off for spicy jalapeño serrano and sweet pineapple habanero salsas, made specifically for the competition.
“A lot of our food is known for chili guajillo,” Salas said of the dried form of the popular mirasol chili, which is dominant in the dipping stew birria tacos, their most popular dish. In addition to the birria, ranchero, and chip salsas, standards at the café include the hot red chili d’arbol and the milder salsa verde made from green tomatillos and serrano peppers.
Salas described the flavors as Tex-Mex during a recent tour ahead of the lunch rush. The menu choices are inspired from the multiple generations that hailed from Victoria, TX, a few hours’ drive from the border, before his grandparents traveled north as migrant farmers.
The exact provenance gets lost in the sizzling smells of the tortillas and seasoned chicken taking up half of the flat top grill, where the kitchen staff on that day hailed from Guanajuato and Michoaćan.
The signature dish of La Familia came from his home, though: Taco Ida’s way – steak, Chihuahua cheese, onions, cilantro, and ranchero salsa in two crispy corn tortillas – created by and named for his wife and business partner.
The aptly named eatery is as much a tribute as it is testament.
His grandparents “followed the crops, from Maine to Michigan,” before settling in the area in 1978. The first born of the grandchildren, he revered his grandfather right back.
“He was a big part of my life – just always there for me.”
Salas left high school in ninth grade and began working construction at his father’s drywall business where he learned the trades, joining a union at 17.
Dan, 41, and Ida, 39, take care of their uncle and two kids. One works at the family businesses – Dan owns a construction company and Ida runs her insurance agency – the other recently graduated with a media arts degree.
Nearly two decades ago, they tried this before: a taco shop at the corner of Alcott and Burdick streets, where Nonla Burger is located.
“We were in our early 20s, we had kids at the house. It was just too much work for a young couple,” he said.
More life experience helped them when they gave it another go. A few months after La Familia opened, a global pandemic quickly rampaged through the country and its economy.
“We had our highest day of sales and lowest day of sales in the same week. It was a very difficult transition.”
But people rallied, the community kept ordering food.
“Just seeing what we can do as a couple, what we can do in this town,” he said. “People like a mom and pop shop. Everything worked out.”
Indeed, the operation centers on the extended family community which they’ve built around themselves.
Salas hired the band for the recent Hispanic Heritage Fiesta. The display case contains coffee from a Portage-based roaster and pastries from a new entrepreneur called Huey D’s Goodies. Salas said they recently began using a start-up produce distributor. The torta bread is from La Azteca Bakery in the Edison neighborhood. In addition to Salas-family portraits, paintings of popular Mexican entertainers, made by an area artist, hang on the walls.
“We try to support and deal with as many local Hispanic and minority businesses as possible,” he said.
On this day, two burly guys sit in a corner high top table wearing gear for Premier Athletics for Youth Development, a non-profit using sports and academics to keep kids on a path that will keep them in school. After eating, the two are stuffing cards into envelopes for a fundraiser taking place that evening, in partnership with other downtown restaurants and bars.
The atmosphere may be intentional, the community support natural, but a Mexican joint that specializes in breakfast in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo also appears to have been a strategic choice.
“The food sells itself,” he said. “It’s what overcame the pandemic.”
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