MARÍA ELENA BALL, an ambassador for the Mexican cuisine
Mexico in Alaska celebrates 45 years of culinary tradition
BY gabriela olmos
49 years ago, María Elena Ball drove her car with no destination in mind. She just wanted to drive north. On June 7, 1968, she arrived in Anchorage. That summer Alaskans dressed their babies in only diapers, arguing that it was too hot; but María Elena was shivering with cold. She was born in Zitácuaro, a town in Michoacán, Mexico, and was not familiar with Alaskan weather.
“It did not take me long to know I was going to stay here,” she said, remembering Anchorage’s early years, when there was friendship among everyone in this small community. “Anchorage reminded me of the little town where I grew up, which was then very small.” Ball remembers that in both places people were friendly and you could ask anyone for help, regardless if you knew them personally. So she decided to make her living in Alaska.
Four years later she opened the restaurant Mexico in Alaska. Its first location was in Mountain View, as a taquería. After eleven years in business, she moved the restaurant to its current location on Old Seward Highway, where she has served traditional Mexican food for more than thirty years.
The restaurant’s beginning was difficult. María Elena cooked, served, cleaned, and ran the cash register. Her mother shipped spices and dried peppers north from San Antonio, Texas, because Alaskan grocers did not carry Mexican ingredients. Taco Loco already existed, so corn and flour tortillas could be found. Beans, meat, and chicken were also easy to get. María Elena says: “I started with very simple dishes, because we did not have the supplies we needed.”
Little by little, she extended the menu, and today it includes chiles rellenos, mole, tacos de lengua, and other traditional dishes. To accomplish this she first had to change many fixed ideas that people had about Mexican food. “When I started with the restaurant Americans thought there was only one way to prepare everything: one way of making tacos, one way of making enchiladas, one way of making tostadas.” María Elena had to teach them that Mexican food is as versatile as the creativity of the cook.
Not long after she introduced mole, a woman of Hispanic descent ordered enchiladas. María Elena asked her client if she knew mole poblano. The woman firmly assured that she knew what Mexican food was. When the mole enchiladas were served, the customer took offense, insisting that they were not a Mexican dish. María Elena later discovered that the diner was from Texas, where Tex-Mex food is prepared more often than any traditional Mexican cuisine.
This experience helped María Elena to understand that in order to be an ambassador of Mexican cuisine, she must prepare the palates of her clients for the experience of new dishes. Since that day she has offered samples of the salsas and moles, so people can taste them before ordering. “I have spent almost 45 years training, teaching, explaining,” she says.
María Elena was instrumental in another important change to the perception of Mexican culture: having Spanish menus in the restaurants. “This change took a while. Restaurants offered such things as Supreme Queen Tostadas,” she says, adding that she wrote on her menu the names of her town and other places in Mexico. In those days, people used the term “Spanish rice” to refer to the Mexican rice, which is prepared with tomato and spices. María Elena has also made sure that people call this dish by its correct name.
As it was for all Alaskan residents, the 1980s economic crisis was difficult for María Elena and her restaurant. She remembers that friends came to say goodbye almost daily. The economy was so depressed that they simply abandoned their homes and businesses. Many banks were shut down. But she would not give up. She had decided to make her life in Alaska, and she knew she had to fight for it with determination. So María Elena supplemented her income by teaching Spanish, English, and cooking. She also started a cleaning service and opened a Spanish-language video store. She worked from sunrise to sunset.
In those difficult times, she introduced to local grocery stores her Mexico in Alaska burritos. That was in 1986. Ten years later, she introduced the salsas. Both the burritos and the salsas are still being sold in Alaska’s grocery stores. When she talks about them, María Elena recalls a Mexican saying: “Necessity is the mother of all invention.”
Throughout the years, many people have asked María Elena why she does not obtain a license to sell liquor along with her food. She knows she would have better income if she did. But she has preferred to keep the Mexican family spirit in her restaurant. María Elena remembers with pride how in Mexico the family as an institution is respected. She wanted her children and her nephews and nieces to have that loving example. So she never agreed to sell hard alcohol in the restaurant.
Members of the next generations have learned from her approach to life. And now her great-niece is in charge of Mexico in Alaska, although María Elena keeps going to the restaurant every single day. Almost 45 years ago she decided to make her life in this business, and throughout these years she has discovered that life is full when you are determined to keep your own promises.