By Michael Groomes
A typical dreary fall day in Dayton finds me at El Gaban for a lunch time meeting with the owners Miriam Sigona and Jorge Ramirez, who are married. I am greeted by Jorge as Miriam is in the kitchen supervising. Food and drink are offered immediately, which tends to be the usual courtesy I encounter from immigrant-owned restaurants. After picking a few items and Jorge relaying the order to Miriam and the staff, we sit down and are shortly joined by Miriam.
Miriam and Jorge met in Durango, Mexico approximately 16 years ago while both working for the government. She as an accountant and he as a computer programmer. Miriam had moved to Durango from Puebla, Mexico which is a state in southern Mexico. Durango is in the north. When I asked why they left the good jobs they had, they both looked at each other and said the same thing—the violence.
Photos by Bobby Tewksbury.
Government workers like themselves were regularly targeted by the Cartel for ransom money. Shootouts between rival factions were catching more people in their crossfire and the potential for losing their life as a result of some random carjacking was the primary motivator to pack and leave. I said to them what did you think when you left violence to come to a country where you see violence in the news everyday. Jorge kinda shook his head a little with a look in his eyes of “if you only knew” and pointedly said yes there is violence here but it’s nothing like in Mexico. Point well taken sir, point well taken.
They made the journey in 2014 to the United States and struggled a lot with the language, with getting work and in general simply not knowing what they could and could not do. Miriam found work as a cook/waitress with Taqueria Mixteca, not the third street location but the location Miriam and Jorge’s restaurant is currently occupying. She never thought she would be cooking for a living as she didn’t have to in Mexico. Jorge got work doing construction, suffice it to say he did not like it at first as he was used to an office environment, remember he was a computer programmer. On top of finding a way to support themselves they encountered what so many people do when coming here, which is they really didn’t know what they could do when they got here. Fortunately they met Martha Rodriguez, with Welcome Dayton, who let them know the services available and opportunities that were available to them. In the meantime they were starting a family. Two children came along who are now 6 and 10 years old. The 6 year old is their daughter and the 10 year old his their son.
Within a relatively short time after arriving here in 2017 Jorge stopped working for someone else and started his own construction company and Miriam in 2020 stopped working for someone else and took advantage of an opportunity to run her own restaurant. You can imagine starting a business during the height of the Covid pandemic was extremely hard and difficult, but she has persevered and maintains a chef and at least 2 servers.
The food she serves is a combination of Northern and Southern Mexican classics, not the typical Tex-Mex cuisine you find in Ohio. The first time I met them I got Tacos, which is like a Litmus test of Mexican food. My mouth still waters thinking of the 4 different tacos I had. Topped traditional style with cilantro and diced onions they were tender, juicy and came on hand made tortillas, which are made to order. The sauces that were available range from your basic “Gringo” salsa, which is tomato sauce, a little diced onion and cilantro, non-spicy, a tasty salsa verde with just a little jalapeno bite, a salsa roja that has what seems to be a creamier texture and is decisively warmer on the tongue and finally the “Mexican” salsa roja, which is only for people like myself and anyone else who has an asbestos lined tongue. Their version reminded me of Asian chili oil, but with a saltier palate and a whole lot more heat. My second visit, the day I got to speak with them, I tried another classic Mexican dish Chilaquiles. When you think of comfort food, second to Tacos would be Chilaquiles, a breakfast dish but can also be eaten for lunch or dinner. It’s tortilla chips bathed in a red or green sauce which is then topped with your choice of chicken or carne asada two fried eggs (yolks runny) and finished off with cotija cheese, typical sides are refried beans and rice. Again I was not disappointed as the Chilaquiles was very flavorful and the eggs were perfectly cooked. Something different was the carne asada was diced, when it normally comes as a whole piece. It made the dish more manageable. Their guacamole was very fresh, not to much lime and just the right amount of tomato, cilantro and jalapeno mixed in with it. If you know about traditional Mexican food you can also take advantage of them making a dish they don’t have on the menu. They feature a special of the day, if you look in a corner on the menu it’s listed as a menu item. The special the day I went was Caldo de Res, which is a type of beef broth soup with chunks of beef and vegetables. Drinks include fountain drinks and traditional Mexican agua frescas. Miriam and Jorge both want to evolve the menu over the next year to include more authentic and traditional dishes, the pride in their food is evident as they talk about it.
The warmth of their staff and willingness to provide prompt service make El Gaban a must visit restaurant. Make sure to say hello to Miriam and if Jorge is around ask him to tell you how he and Miriam met, maybe just maybe he might tell you with a sheepish smile on his face while Miriam looks at him knowingly.