Photography by Chip Chockley. On the left: Juan Castelan, owner.
So you’re craving Mexican food, but the basics just aren’t cutting it anymore. You walk into a restaurant, look over the menu and find that you’re not excited by just another chicken taco or a burrito covered in queso. Exploring the entry-level Mexican fare was fun, but now you’re ready for the real deal.
First of all, get yourself over to La Guadalupana. That’s out on Summer Avenue, of course.
Where else would we find Mexican food like abuela made?
The restaurant opened back in 1999 and changed hands a few years later when the owner’s brother Juan Castelan took over.
“I had managed a restaurant for 10 years already prior to buying this business. We took over in 2004 because we wanted to own our first restaurant,” says Juan.
Jony Castelan is one of the owner’s sons, and the nephew of the man that started it all. Juan put Jony and his brothers to work when they were around 14 years old. How did Jony get his start in the restaurant?
“In the back, duh!” he says. “You start from the bottom and get to the top, but it takes work. For a kid to learn that is big. That’s what shaped us.”
He now takes a behind-the-scenes role at the restaurant, and he recently opened a new Guadalupana food truck at Poplar and Yates, giving Memphis even more Mexican food opportunities.
While Summer Avenue is now known by most Memphians as the spot to look for great Mexican, the taco scene wasn’t always this b. When Juan’s brother opened La Guadalupana in 1999, Memphis didn’t have many authentic places, so the restaurant made a name for itself by serving the food that the Hispanics in the area know and love.
This year is its 20th anniversary, and Jony says he’s seen generations of regulars keep coming back.
“I’ve seen people as friends, as couples, then with kids, and now I’m technically an uncle—well, a restaurant uncle,” he says.
The customers aren’t the only ones that have stuck around all this time. Most of their staff has stayed for over 15 years. “We’re a family when you work with us,” says Juan. If you want the old-school La Guadalupana experience, you can catch those longtime staff members in the morning and lunch shifts.
Customer menu favorites include tacos, chilaquiles and huevos rancheros, but over the years, they’ve been surprised to see more and more people coming out in search of the more adventurous dishes like menudo and barbacoa de chivo (slow-cooked goat meat).
“They don’t want to try a chimichanga. They want to try goat (we have a lot of foodies), even tongue. I would’ve never thought that a non-Hispanic person would actually go get tongue,” Jony says.
If you’re ready to be part of the foodie crowd and step your taco game up a notch, and you’ve made your way to La Guadalupana, your next step is the ridiculously delicious goat-barbacoa taco. Imagine the melt-in-your-mouth barbacoa you might order on your Chipotle bowl, but add 10 levels of rich, deep flavor. Make it authentic with onion and cilantro on top, perfect for balancing out the fatty, meaty greatness. Some restaurants frown upon modifications, but here you can do some customizing if that’s your thing. In fact, Jony encourages it. He says if they have it, they can make it, so give it a try sometime!
“Whatever people want, I’m like, ‘Yeah! That would be awesome!’ I don’t think people are picky; they’re just creative,” he says.
Now we need something to accompany the goat-barbacoa taco. This next one is for the very adventurous, and it comes with some real bragging rights.
Menudo. Maybe you’ve seen it on the menu before (sometimes listed as a “weekend only” item) but never known what this dish was all about. Menudo is a smoky, comforting bowl of broth made with lots of guajillo peppers, simmered for a very long time.
Jony knows the basics of this recipe, but he says the specifics are best left in the hands of the chefs that have been making it for nearly 20 years.
This is not a quick dish to make, so many restaurants only offer it on the weekends. But at La Guadalupana, you can enjoy it any day of the week. So what makes this dish so adventurous? The tripe. Don’t leave! Yes, you heard tripe, but don’t let that scare you away. The broth gets soaked into the tripe, creating a delivery system for that amazing broth. Need more convincing? According to popular Mexican folklore, menudo can be a great remedy for your roughest morning. Have a night on the town? Menudo is the cure!
Pro tip: This is the Mexican version of dipping a dinner roll into chicken noodle soup: Roll up a corn tortilla and dunk it in the menudo broth. I’m convinced that this is the tortilla’s ultimate purpose.
If you’re up for a little adventure and want to impress your friends, go to La Guadalupana, order menudo and a goat-barbacoa taco on the side, and see why this place has been drawing people in for 20 years. This family operation loves seeing new faces, but they won’t compromise their authenticity or quality.
“That’s the key to a restaurant: Be consistent with flavor, service, everything,” says Jony.
Finish off your plates, wonder why you’ve been eating basic burritos your whole life, and collect your Mexican card. You can still get the queso.
Aryanna Duhl Smith is a Memphis transplant and amateur blogger at Blossoming Brick, where she rants about food, cities and the environment. She can be found taking pictures of buildings, trees and her tea on IG @blossomingbrick.
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais and his wife and kids.