A new family-owned taqueria that opened quietly on the main drag in Winterport is serving West Coast-style Mexican food, using family recipes to make a mark on the local food scene.
“This is the stuff my grandma Frances makes,” said the soft-spoken Isaiah Smith, the 21-year-old owner of Amigos Taqueria. “Pretty much everything on the menu is stuff I grew up eating. She used to make the carne asada, the rice and beans, the enchiladas, the chile verde — it’s a lot of family stuff.”
But what is a taqueria?
“We are not a sit-down, full-service restaurant. You’re not going to be here for an hour. You’re going to order your food, eat it and that’s that,” said Mark Smith, Isaiah Smith’s father, who helps out at the restaurant. “That’s what a taqueria is: It’s fast, it’s fresh, it’s small. We don’t have a fryer. We don’t serve chimichangas. It’s simple.”
The 30-seat taqueria located at 111 Main St. in Winterport has a simple menu: nachos, tacos, burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas, with your choice of 10 different fresh, flavorful fillings. There’s a small selection of beer and wine, tasty Jarritos sodas and a handful of daily specials. That’s it.
The simplicity of the menu and size of the restaurant means that each batch of fragrant, slow-simmered barbacoa beef, each pot of smoky, rich mole sauce and each spicy, garlicky serving of pork chile verde is made in small batches, utilizing family recipes perfected by the Smiths.
“It’s West Coast-style Mexican,” said Mark Smith, who works there a few days per week. “This is the kind of stuff you get in California, Nevada, Colorado.”
Isaiah Smith moved to Maine from Las Vegas, Nevada, about four years ago with his family, which includes younger brothers Alexander, 10, and Samuel, 9. Isaiah, who graduated from high school before coming to Maine, started working for the Sea Dog Brewing Co. in Bangor, where he was a server. He considered going to college to study business, but his dad suggested that instead of enrolling in classes he should just start his own business.
“Why spend money on classes when you could just learn how to run a business by opening your own?” Mark Smith said. “He just kind of threw himself into it. I think that’s the best way to learn sometimes.”
A restaurant had long been a dream of father and son alike, but it wasn’t until a series of chance events that a place like Amigos Taqueria came to be — including the opening up of the small, highly manageable and affordable location in a town the whole family loves.
“One of the reasons we loved Winterport was because we loved taking our motorcycles up Route 1 — and that we could get biscuits and gravy at The Bacon Tree,” Mark Smith said. The Winterport restaurant was located in the building where Amigos is now, but moved to a larger location at 279 Main St. in the spring. “David and Leslie [Wilson, owners of The Bacon Tree,] have been huge supporters of ours since Day One, and we wouldn’t be here without them.”
When The Bacon Tree opened for business in its new location on June 1, the old location was available, and the Wilsons, who own 111 Main St., offered Isaiah the lease. In less than a month, Isaiah and his family had painted the walls bright colors, bought new equipment and created a menu based on those family-tested recipes. They opened on June 26.
“It was really, really fast,” Isaiah Smith said. “I have learned so much this summer. You really have to put yourself out there. You have no free time. But it’s absolutely worth it. I love it.”
The staff is small — just Isaiah Smith, his dad Mark Smith and Isaiah Smith’s cousin Vinny, with young Alexander or Samuel occasionally taking orders and cracking jokes with customers on the weekends.
Much of the meat used at the restaurant is sourced from local purveyors such as W.A. Bean. Other ingredients, including the chiles used, are from trusted suppliers in New Mexico and California. The spices you find in Amigos’ housemade salsas and in the Puerco al Pastor — pork slow cooked in a red chile sauce with pineapple and then shredded — are the spices you’d find in dishes at taquerias out west. The cheese on the tacos — and the Mexican-style corn on the cob that’s sometimes on special — is Cotija, a Parmesan-like Mexican cheese that they put into a blender and pulverize into a fine powder. This winter, they plan to offer heartier dishes such as Pozole, a traditional Mexican soup made from hominy, either pork or chicken, and lots of seasoning and garnishes.
“We had customers come in this summer that were from California and Arizona, and they were like, ‘Oh, we’ll tell you if this is authentic or not,’” Isaiah Smith said. “And once they tried it, they were like, ‘Yeah, this is just like it.’”
As far as those customers who may not know much about taqueria-style Mexican food, well, the Smiths just let the food speak for itself.
“We knew if we could just get the flavors out there, we’d start bringing more people in,” Mark Smith said. “So far, so good.”
Amigos Taqueria is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Mondays. Food is available eat-in or take-out; call 223-5292 to place an order. For more information, like Amigos Taqueria on Facebook.