VALRICO – The inspiration behind the restaurant featuring “wholesome Mexican food, cooked in the traditional Taqueria fashion” is a woman who lost her fight with breast cancer but not the enduring admiration and devotion of a family committed to making her dream come true.
For Maria Soledad, that dream was to open a restaurant with the family she raised throughout the Bajas of California, including the border towns of Tecate, Tijuana and San Diego. Posthumously that eatery is open for business in the Greater Brandon area of Valrico, just north of the intersection of Lumsden and Lithia Pinecrest roads.
“She always tried to convince us to open a restaurant together,” said Joseph Cardenas of Riverview, one of eight children born to the namesake of Taqueria Doņa Maria. “She got sick and she left us but her dream sort of stayed with all of us and I guess I was the one who decided to make it come to fruition. I thought I would do this to honor her and have her dream come true.”
The Taqueria Doņa Maria, at 865 Lithia Pinecrest Road, is in the shopping area that includes a Walmart Neighborhood Market, Tuesday Morning and Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse.
Cardenas, a nurse, pharmacist and dermatology researcher for 25 years, said the furthest thing from his mind was following in his mother’s footsteps.
“I wanted to be away from the restaurant business,” he said. “We grew up in it and I hated that it took my mother away. I wanted to grow up, go to school and do something so I didn’t have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a kitchen.”
Cardenas said in his chosen path he was “in his glory, because I was doing what I loved doing, being a service person.” But last year, seven years after his mother died, “I just decided I was missing something.”
“I miss my mother every day,” he said. “Besides the physical thing, my mother being there in person, I missed also her restaurant, because that to me was home.”
Consider then Taqueria Doņa Maria as a visit to the home, kitchen and taco stand of Doņa Maria, where the motto is: “Fresh, Fast and Friendly.” Dishes feature tacos, taquitos, tostadas, burritos and sopes, which are thick, lightly fried corn cakes topped with a choice of fillings. The menu centers around a variety of “guisados,” or Mexican braises, incorporating seasoned chicken, marinated pork, tender pork/carnitas, grilled steak and fresh fish and shrimp. Signature dishes are Chilaquiles Caseros, Campechana Seafood Cocktail, Machaca and fish and crispy tacos, topped off with the Abuelita Chocolate Cupcake with chocolate glaze.
“Before she passed my mom and my younger sister wrote a handwritten book with all her recipes and that was passed on to all of us,” Cardenas said. “I tell people, ‘This is my mom’s kitchen. This is what we ate. This is my Mexico.’ My Mexican food is fresh. It’s made to order. That is what I know as authentic taqueria food.”
Restaurant furnishings include paintings by local artist Robert Horning, depicting a portrait of Cardenas’ mother, found in her closet; a winery she visited with her husband; a map of where the family grew up; and the taco stand itself. Also, there are paintings of sunflowers — her favorite flower — in which eight spring up higher than the others, representing the matriarch’s children. In one such depiction there is a smaller sunflower, representing the son who died at age 2.
In the kitchen, Cardenas said, his sister is the chef and his daughter, who remembers well her grandmother’s presence in the kitchen, is active as well in the day-to-day operations. His other siblings have participated as well with suggestions and input.
“The inside reminds me of a taco stand inside of a restaurant,” Cardenas said. “It reminds me of my mother’s first taco stand, as I remember it as a little kid.”
Taqueria Doņa Maria is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant is closed on Monday. Call: (813) 655-9999.