Mother-son team brings diverse cuisine to La Llamarada Mexican restaurant
Photography by Jonathan Amado
The author translated statements from Doña María Eufrasio and José Ángel Ahedo from Spanish to English.
La Llamarada is right on Summer, but maybe not the part of Summer you usually scan for a Mexican restaurant. If you’re heading east, it’s just after the overpass, amongst the car dealerships and tire repair shops that are so common in this part of Binghampton.
When I first visit La Llamarada, it’s a bit early for lunch time, and I quickly realize this is not a typical Mexican restaurant. The “homemade” feel is everywhere: the smells, the staff, the simple decorations, and of course the food. I am struck to see cornmeal empanadas—a staple of the Spanish Caribbean breakfast, like in my native Venezuela. It’s the first time I have ever seen one of these in a Mexican restaurant, so it seems like the right place to start. It’s outstanding and simply delicious. The beef stuffing is picante (hot, spicy) but also sweet, which is quite unique.
I order a second one and start a conversation with Doña María Eufrasio, who seems to be in charge. She quickly points out she doesn’t own the place; rather, her son does. She is directing things in the kitchen as she talks to me.
She tells me she is from Veracruz, Mexico, and is the daughter of parents from the Dominican Republic, and I immediately see the Caribbean connection.
And then she recommends the gorditas (“little fat ones”) for me. “If you are Venezuelan, you’re going to like these,” she says, confident.
I know gorditas because they are the most similar thing to Venezuelan arepas: a corn-flour patty that you slice open and stuff with something like ham and cheese, shredded beef, or black beans. But Maria’s gorditas are not like a regular arepa. They are deep fried (arepas are usually grilled), and they are already stuffed, like Central American pupusas. Hers are filled with beans. She slices one open and adds some curtido, a sort of pickled slaw, which is also the way Guatemalans and Hondurans eat their pupusas. Wow!
I haven’t been in La Llamarada more than 20 minutes, and all of these food references from all over the continent are striking to me. What a discovery!
Doña María cuts short my enthusiastic conversation, reminding me that soon it will be lunch time and she has work to do. “Come back later today and we can talk more,” she says.
Before leaving, I get a tamal. They seem huge compared to the regular Mexican tamales I have tried before. My wife had asked me for some enchiladas, and I think the big tamal will do. I also have a special weakness for tamales; I think it is the single dish that tells the most about each restaurant.
When I unwrap the foil layer at home, I feel the Caribbean connection again: This tamal is cooked on a plantain leaf! Just like Venezuelan hallacas! The filling is a red salsa pork stew, as picante as delicious. Anna, my wife, who doesn’t do very well with hot spices, keeps asking me for more water as she devours it. I want to go back to La Llamarada right then!
Next time, I visit during lunch. It is packed with Latinos, making a line for what is on the menu for Tuesdays: pollo en pipián (chicken pipián). I have no idea what this thick stew is, so I google it. It turns out that the consistency of the orange, thick sauce is because of pumpkin seeds. You roast them, add some other seeds and chiles and chicken broth, and come up with this beautiful salsa, like a mole or a curry. Served with rice, beans, and homemade tortillas, it’s outstanding!
But Tuesdays are busy and Doña María doesn’t seem very keen on talking to me. I hang out a little bit, but this is not a restaurant where you can order coffee and spend some time. It is more like an eatery: people share tables with other folks that didn’t come with them and there are always people ready to take the next empty seat, so I decide to say “hasta luego” and just try another day.
Every day there is a different special: Monday, fried fish and shrimp; Tuesday, the aforementioned chicken; Wednesday is mole (another curry type of stew, but based on chiles); Thursday is seasonal; Fridays is chiles rellenos (peppers stuffed with chicken or cheese); and Saturday is tamales, caldo (beef or shrimp soup), and menudo (a beef tripe soup, very popular in Mexico). So, I decide to visit on chiles rellenos day, Friday.
I go around closing time, thinking it might be the best time for Maria to have some space to talk to me. Good idea, except that the chiles are gone and I have to repeat the empanadas. Not a big sacrifice, luckily.
And María finally seems to have some time to talk. She tells me she picked the name “La Llamarada,” which translates as “the flame,” to express how everything is fresh and recently cooked.
“Food sells out every day here, so we start over with the cooking every day,” she says. “It feels like the stove is always on.”
She has been in the United States for 28 years—first in Texas and then in Georgia, South Carolina, and Michigan. She first worked as a cook and then did farm work with cucumbers and strawberries. Finally, she landed in Memphis where she settled “a good while ago,” as she says.
Her youngest son, José Ángel Ahedo, 23, was born here. He owns La Llamarada but calls her “La Jefa” (The Boss Lady) every time. “I grew up visiting places where she was the cook, and every one of them would be packed. People just love her food,” he says. “When it was time for me to get a job, I started working at a signage company. It was a good job, but very physical. I would get home very tired every night, and I started thinking about buying a little shop where we could build on something that was ours.”
He seems proud to tell me how he never partied and traveled like some older teens do. Instead, he focused on building up his savings to enable The Boss Lady to do what she knows. “I knew it couldn’t go wrong,” he says.
That was five years ago. “It wasn’t easy at the beginning,” says José Ángel. “We didn’t have any kind of advertisement or signage, and only a few local people knew about us.
Although we weren’t making a lot of money, at least it was ours, and that was enough to keep us going.”
When they were starting to be more known, Covid struck. “It didn’t really affect our sales, but rather it affected the prices of the ingredients and our ability to find new workers,” Doña María remembers. “Right now, it’s only four of us doing all the work. I would like to add two more people, but it has been impossible. At 65, I am getting a bit too old to do all this cooking day after day.”
Even with the challenges, José Ángel is happy with the direction their business is heading. “We love to have American people coming, and our American clientele has grown with time,” he says. “Since the very beginning we had this in mind.”
José Ángel has been intentional about details to make a wide swath of Memphians feel at home at La Llamarada—like accepting credit cards and making sure the menu is translated to English.
“We want everyone to feel welcome and have the opportunity to come and try some different Mexican food other than the usual tacos,” he says. “If you come here for tacos, we will prepare you real good ones, because our tortillas are homemade, but then you will miss the opportunity to try our true specialty: the cuisine from Veracruz.”
2877 Summer Avenue
Alejandro Paredes is a Venezuelan journalist who has been in Memphis since 2014. He is communications director at Advocates for Immigrants Rights. He has been involved in environmental and social equity initiatives and showcases Latínx culture as a musician under the alias of Alex Walls. He also collaborates with Cazateatro Bilingual Theater Group. @panarkista
Jonathan Amado is a Memphis-based photographer and barista. Although a California native, he loves Memphis and utilizes his talents to cultivate community and support local businesses. @jonathanamado_