ABOUT THE DISH
Includes: A plate-sized grilled cornmeal patty topped with a bean or meat base, avocado, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese and homemade salsa.
ABOUT THE RESTAURANT
What: Taqueria Jalisco.
Where: 1634 Rossville Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Maria Parra is more than 2,000 miles away from the sidewalk where she began her cooking career, but her approach to traditional Mexican cuisine remains true to her roots.
A native of the southwestern Mexican state of Jalisco, Parra, 51, began cooking when she was a child and started selling dishes inspired by family recipes as a way of supplementing the income from her shoe store.
"She would make extra food -- desserts or anything -- and send my brothers out to sell them," said Parra's youngest son, Jorge. "As they saved up money, she started selling tacos outside her shoe store and incorporated ice cream after that."
Now, Parra is the proprietor of Taqueria Jalisco, a trendy eatery on Rossville Avenue well-known for its traditional Mexican dishes prepared in a white and cherry red kitchen trailer parked behind the restaurant.
The menu features Mexican street fare such as burritos and tacos. There also are exotic specials including menudo, a soup made with pork bellies, and birria, a peppery beef stew.
One of the less-common selections on Taqueria Jalisco's menu is the huarache, an oval-shaped dish of grilled masa, a dough composed of cornmeal mixed with water.
A common fixture on Mexican menus, the huarache is less common in the United States. It is similar to the tostada, only with a less crisp consistency.
Parra begins the huarache by rolling masa into a ball. She then flattens the dough between two wooden boards until it is the size and shape of a shoe sole. The word huarache is Spanish for sandal.
Parra then transfers the now-oblong masa to the grill, where it bakes for five to 10 minutes before she adds toppings. She starts with refried pinto beans or a variety of meats, including pineapple-marinated pork, chicken, chorizo and beef tongue.
The finished dish features many additional layers, including lettuce, pico de gallo, queso fresco -- a moist Mexican cheese -- and tart Mexican sour cream.
Despite huaraches being an off-menu special, Taqueria Jalisco fields about 50 orders a day when they are available, Jorge said.
"It's a very popular item," he said. "We're working on getting it on the menu."
The dish is generously proportioned but includes no side dishes. As with all offerings at Taqueria Jalisco, it is made to order.
With the exception of a jar of pickled jalapenos, almost every ingredient -- from the rice to two varieties of house salsa -- is prepared fresh or, in the case of the tortillas and breads, purchased locally.
The trade-off of longer cooking times when working without precooked items is worth the improved flavor, Jorge said.
"[Fresh food] tastes absolutely different," he said. "Whenever you use something out of a can, you can instantly taste it.
"We do have some waste at the end of the day, but we prefer that to having stuff that can preserve for a long time."
Taqueria Jalisco originally opened six years ago as a supplement to the family's grocery store at 300 E. Main St. They purchased their distinctive trailer for $6,500 to offer a way for Maria Parra to cook without investing in a completely new building.
They remained at that location for four years until it was closed. They then moved to the other end of East Main Street near Hawthorne Street, where they remained for about a year before abandoning it due to the cost of repairing windows broken during frequent nighttime shootings.
For about a year, Taqueria Jalisco existed solely as a stand, operating weekly at the Chattanooga Market before relocating again in November to its current location.
Moving is nothing new for the Parras, who left Mexico for Dalton, Ga., about 20 years ago. The family drifted from Florida to New York in search of whatever odd jobs were available, from landscaping and maid service to picking fruit, Jorge said.
They opened their first restaurant, also called Taqueria Jalisco, about 10 years ago while living in Lake Placid, Fla. The restaurant is still open and is run by Maria Parra's cousins.
Although his mother taught him to cook, Jorge said his duties rarely take him into the kitchen at Taqueria Jalisco. Despite being mostly hands-off with the food's preparation, Jorge wears a number of other hats, from translator and manager to social media director and, at times, janitor.
Growing up, the family's itinerant lifestyle was difficult at times, he said, but it prepared him well for being the restaurant's public face.
"It was hard moving around so much, but it wasn't that bad, I guess," he said, smiling. "It taught me to be really social."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...