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From the fields to the kitchen: Chowchilla residents’ favorite taco shop is run by a Mexican immigrant

This story was originally published in The Other California podcast which you can find here.

It’s a sunny afternoon in the small town of Chowchilla, a 20-minutes drive north of Madera. Cars bustle along Robertson Boulevard, where Chowchilla Taco Shop is located. For over a decade, Maria Martinez has run the shop with the help of her family.

But before we get to the food, let’s go back a few decades to when Martinez first arrived in Chowchilla. She migrated from Jalisco, Mexico, and worked in the fields. After a decade of picking almonds and oranges, she took another job at the one McDonald’s in town.

Every day on her way to work, she passed by a little stand-alone shop with outdoor seating called the Chowchilla Taco Shop.

“I passed by every morning and I liked the place,” she says in Spanish. “One day, someone told me they were selling it, so I did everything I could to make sure I got it.”

Her childhood dream was to own a restaurant.

“We have cooked since we were kids,” she says. “We learned as children and now we are continuing our parents' traditions.”

For 13 years, Maria has flipped tortillas and folded burritos. She now feels at home in this kitchen, but she says that wasn’t always the case.

Maria Martinez in her kitchen at Chowchilla Taco Shop.
Madi Bolanos
Maria Martinez in her kitchen at Chowchilla Taco Shop.

“Opening a business in another country without knowing the language, well, that’s a big risk, but it all turned out okay, thanks to God,” she says.

I try the tacos de asada along with an icy cold orange Jarrito. She gives me three but I can only eat two. They’re delicious but bigger than your average street taco.

The taco shop is open every day except Sunday. Maria runs it by herself, but when it gets too busy she says her two sisters stop by to help.

“Sometimes we get here and people are already waiting for us to open,” she says.

Apart from tacos, burritos, chile verde and more traditional Mexican dishes, she also makes American fast food - and it’s popular. Robin Dean lives down the street and says it’s her favorite place to grab a quick bite. She walks here often with her three granddaughters.

“They make the best hamburgers and fries in town,” she says.

Rainy Navarro has been eating at Chowchilla’s Taco Shop for over 20 years. On this day, she’s ordering asada fries for her son, who turns 16 today.

“My kids love the carne asada fries and they even got a burrito pizza,”she says.

Willie Fonsecca moved to Chowchilla from Merced four years ago. He found the taco shop when he was looking for authentic burgers near his new home.

“I really just get the hamburgers here because it feels better than a McDonald’s,” he says. “It feels a little more homemade.”

And for Maria, who worked at McDonald’s right before she started her restaurant, that’s a compliment worth celebrating.

This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.