Word-of-mouth joint cranks out the tortillas and other Mexican staples

Sam's Leon Mexican Foods and Tortilleria is one of this word-of-mouth joints that doesn't really advertise.

This combination dine-in and take-out restaurant, catering service and tortilla factory at 5014 South 20th Street has churned out Mexican staples for decades. It's just a block south of another little known spot for honest, no-frills, not exactly authentic Mexican fare, the American GI Forum.

Nestled among bungalow residences, Sam's brightly colored awning sets it apart.

It's been through several owners and according to present proprietors David and Araseli Murillo, who bought the place in 2008, the unusual name belongs to the man who opened it, Sam Rocha, and his partner, Leon. The Murillos juggle the business among several pursuits. David, who's worked construction and did extensive renovations to Sam's after acquiring it, maintains rental properties. Araseli works as an ESL (English as Second Language) liaison at Omaha Bryan High School. They have three daughters.

Araseli says with all they have going on it's a challenge "making sure everything is being done the right way and we're selling a good product," adding, "We're really busy people, but we're hard working people."

Growing up in South Omaha the former Araseli Valadez says Sam's was a well-known landmark for its prodigious tortilla manufacturing operation. Both her mother and an aunt worked there making the ubiquitous flatbread. Her husband estimates between 35,000 to 40,000 corn tortillas are made there weekly. 

For a long time Sam's stood out as a Mexican ethnic food oasis in what used to be a gringo-centric neighborhood starved of such offerings.

Araseli says her folks tell her that until Sam's came along "there was nowhere in Omaha to get tortillas and jalapenos and anything that was Mexican."

Her immigrant parents not only couldn't find good Mexican food locally but they were afraid for their family to publicly express their heritage.

"We were even told, don't speak Spanish because La Migra (immigration police) could be around."

The Latino boon that's transformed South Omaha the last 25 years has meant an explosion of Mexican heritage pride and south of the border-themed food outlets.

"It's exciting. When we were growing up there weren't many Mexican businesses."

Many of those businesses are restaurants, food trucks, grocery stores and bakeries.

"There is a lot of competition which is okay. We're not afraid of competition."

She and her husband had zero food business experience and no previous interest in venturing into the industry, but David Murillo was friends with the last owner, who was looking to sell after some lean years. Murillo and his friend were both from the same small village in the Southern Mexican state of Jalisco. Before they knew it the Murillos found themselves newbies in the food game. After a rough start that coincided with the world's economic collapse, they've turned things around.

It helped, Araseli says, that her husband "is a pretty good cook" who "likes to make a lot of the traditional dishes where he's from." He's since turned over the cooking to others. The couple has kept most of Sam's original menu items and recipes, including its populate tamales featuring a spiced masa. They've expanded the menu, adding tacos, tortas, quesadillas, et cetera. They've also expanded the hours. Unusual for a small, family-owned place, it's open every day of the week.

Araseli says the addition of two food trucks they purchased in 2009, complete with established routes serving area meat processing plants, has made a difference. The business the trucks do, combined with the tortilla, salsa, chips, rice and beans that Sam's makes and distributes to area restaurants and grocery stores, plus the restaurant's walk-in traffic, provides a diversified revenue stream.

"That's what really keeps the business going."

Still, managing a food business was the furthest thing from her mind.

"We just took a chance. We decided this was a good opportunity to do something with a business that had already been established and had a lot of older customers who've been coming here since they were little. We thought we could pick it up and do something better with it.

"Something unplanned sometimes turns out better than something you plan."

There was much to learn and do. Everybody in the family did their part.

"We did a lot of work to this place. It was falling down when we bought it. It's a family business, so we all help each other out. When we first bought it nobody was getting paid. We all had to pitch in to bring up the business."

Sam's features bargain prices and items sold in bulk. You can get filled up for $5. Even the combos are well under $10. You can go home with a dozen tamales or most anything else, including family-size containers of salsa and rice and beans.

She says Sam's can keep prices low because it prepares so much in quantity and its few employees are mostly family. A daughter, a nephew and Araseli's in-laws all work there.

For menu, prices and hours, visit http://www.samsleon.com or call 402-733-3809.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

posted at 08:55 pm
on Friday, December 13th, 2013

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