By Talia Bartoe
La Costeñita Mexican Restaurant appears to be an unassuming small building on the corner of N. Philadelphia and Third Street in Dayton. As I walk in, I am greeted by the smells of spice and cilantro. A quick glance reveals walls bearing Halloween décor, a few rows of tables and booths, and a small freezer filled with delicious-sounding Mexican treats. I introduce myself to a woman sweeping the floor only to discover that she is the owner, taking a break from serving customers and the kitchen, to keep the front clean and kept.
Xitlalli Chavez, the owner of this authentic Mexican eatery, is no stranger to hard work. After both of her parents tragically passed away, she was raised by her Grandmother in Oaxaca, Mexico. From the tender age of seven, she spent long hours at her Grandmother's side working. She learned much more than how to clean, iron, and wash laundry, Xitlalli learned a strong work ethic.
Photos by Bobby Tewksbury
Following the father of her child, at 18 she took all she learned from her Grandmother and made the move to Dayton, Ohio. It was a difficult move, but she wanted the help and financial support for their child. She also has some family in Columbus, but “they all have their own life”, so Dayton is where she thought best to settle.
Ready to establish a life in her new home, she quickly sought and found work at a local Mexican Restaurant. For seven years she worked rigorously, absorbing all the ins and outs of the restaurant business. Then, about two years ago, an exciting opportunity presented itself, she was given a chance to take over a restaurant. It was a significant risk for her. Owning a restaurant of her own was something she had never even imagined.
The building needed quite a lot of work, and she would have to borrow money to get it going. She knew from her experience working in the restaurant world that it isn’t a simple process to operate a business and maintain consistent growth. “I knew it is difficult to balance the cooking, the customers, and the needs of the restaurant.” She shares seriously. The risk might have been too great if it had not been for the supportive community, she had formed throughout her years living here. Unexpectedly, friends stepped up to volunteer their time to help her repair and paint. Other friends loaned her everything from tables and chairs to plates and cutlery. They encouraged her to take the leap believing she would be successful.
With a freshly restored building, Xitlalli worked to make the space feel like hers. The walls are now bright green, colorful sombreros hang from the ceiling, and a variety of art adorns the walls. I was struck by a painting of a lovely woman in full Calaveras—also known as "sugar skulls" makeup. This striking look is often used to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, a.k.a. the Day of the Dead. The food and the painting, with its bright colors, have something in common: both are bold symbols of a beautiful culture.
I asked Xitlalli what the inspiration is behind her food. She ecstatically explained how she loves to see people enjoy her food. We share a chuckle as she tells me “I don’t like to cook at home, but I do here.” Something about cooking food that people love evokes a unique feeling, it is truly fulfilling to see how food makes people happy.
As we are talking, I hear a little giggle followed by a small head peeking around the corner from the back of the restaurant. A young girl is curiously watching us chat, taking the opportunity to hide underneath a food cart to get a better look. Quickly behind her, toddles another little one. My smile gets them busted and Xitlalli turns around to speak to them in Spanish, and they run off, returning to the back of the restaurant. The children are those of another, but the family atmosphere is abundantly clear. I ask about her children. Tearfully, she tells me how they are currently back in her hometown of Oaxaca with their Father's family. Her heart aches for them, but she continues to work hard here, not letting the opportunity of owning her business go wasted.
Her children are certainly what she misses most about home, but the regional food comes in second. Oaxaca is known for a special type of cheese; it’s salty and mild flavor make it a perfect accompaniment to many authentic dishes. When asked what her favorite dish on the menu is, she clearly struggled to narrow it down. “Everything”, she tells me with a small laugh. She thinks for another moment, before sharing that her favorite thing to cook is a taste from her hometown. Tlayuda, an iconic regional dish of Oaxaca, is made with a large, thin, crunchy tortilla, spread with refried beans, covered with cabbage, avocado, steak, and of course, the renowned Oaxaca cheese. This is a distinctive dish that cannot be ordered in most Mexican restaurants, and usually only prepared by those from her small area of Mexico.
Many other more common Mexican meals can be found on her menu as well. There are even pictures up on the wall so that customers can know what to expect. Depending on what you are craving, one can order anything from authentic street-style tacos, tortas, and taco dorados- similar to the more commonly known taquito. If you happen to be in the mood to try something new, I recommend the cactus, another dish that is not easy to find locally. Customers come to La Costeñita specifically to get their cactus craving satisfied. Xitlalli suggests ordering one of their platters with a variety of meats, guacamole, and the traditional onions and cilantro and sharing it family style. After all, family is how this whole adventure began.