On a recent afternoon at Mi Tierra restaurant in Hadley, a few tables are full with late lunchers, some of them celebrating a birthday. Otherwise, it’s a quiet stretch between lunch and dinner service in the sprawling three-dining room eatery on Route 9.
Estela Saravia, 10, daughter of owners Jorge Sosa and Dora Saravia, sits behind the desk just inside the door, concentrating with pencil and paper. Her sister, Alejandra, 5, appears from around the corner on Rollerblades. Before long, Estela has grabbed her skates, too, and both of them are rocketing around the restaurant’s enormous main dining area.
It’s hard to imagine them skating around the space Mi Tierra used to fill, tucked in the back of a small strip mall a short distance down the highway. Though much smaller, it was a thriving business that gained the immigrant family a large following of loyal customers.
But two and a half years ago, it burned to the ground in a tragic fire that leveled all 12 businesses in the strip mall.
Sosa and Saravia vowed to return, and after an outpouring of support from the community, their doors are open. Not only do they have an expansive new restaurant, they now run a growing tortilla-making side line, have forged a stronger connection with local growers and hold monthly charity benefits to show their gratitude for the community support they received during their lowest moments.
Sosa sees those benefit nights as a matter of some urgency. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘If I win the lottery, I’m gonna help people.’ Well, there’s a big chance you’re not going to win the lottery.”
His new place can pack in enough patrons to raise a substantial sum for charities. It’s got a bar area up front with several tables, and a long hallway decorated with Dia de los Muertos skeletons leads to the main seating area. There, a second bar overlooks a sea of tables. All around, alcoves hold decorative items, and multicolored light globes hang from above.
Sosa, who came from Mexico, and Saravia, from El Salvador, started out in 2007 with a little store, not visible from the road, that sold Mexican foods. Gradually they added enough tables to crowd out the grocery aisles and customers found their way to the place, which developed a reputation as a go-to spot for Mexican cuisine. They added occasional live entertainment, and had just purchased a $50,000 tortilla-making machine when the fire struck.
Somehow, Sosa remained philosophical about his circumstances. “I think life gives you different lessons so you can learn,” he said.
The way back
A remarkably long list of Mi Tierra fans rallied to help. The Amherst Chamber of Commerce and other local agencies also came to the aid of Mi Tierra and the other businesses destroyed in the blaze. Soon, there were fundraisers, some of them catered by Bub’s BBQ in Sunderland. The recovery was something many people took on as a personal crusade.
“I always remember this lady,” said Sosa, “she stopped in and she said, ‘It’s my birthday, and I told my friends don’t give me a present, give checks to Mi Tierra. ’ It was the same with a lot of people that helped us one way or the other. They just wanted to help, and they didn’t expect thanks or to get something back.”
The couple also ran Estelita’s Taqueria in Springfield, which has since closed. As they worked to get their Hadley restaurant back with donated funds and loans, they installed a new tortilla machine there and, with the help of a couple of Hadley farmers who sold them heirloom corn, they began producing tortillas for retail. They now use the Estelita’s space as their tortilla factory.
“It was not only a way to get a little bit of money, but also a way of keeping people informed that we’re trying to do our best to get back in business,” Sosa said, “a way to have people remember us for a whole year. That was a good idea.”
The tortilla business not only helped them bridge the gap, but now you can find Mi Tierra tortillas “all the way to Boston, at a couple of stores in Brooklyn, and in an upstate New York restaurant,” Sosa said.
The income from those sales, he says, is re-invested. “Now we have two silos to store all the corn. We used to cook the corn in (regular-sized) pots, and now we cook in something the size of two tables. It holds 600 pounds of corn in one batch.”
Mi Tierra finally re-opened in November 2014, a year and a month after the fire, and Sosa was relieved: “The tortilla business has big potential, but the restaurant is paying all the bills.”
Finding the fit
Transitioning from the old space to the new, bigger one, has had its difficulties.
“At the old place, we just had one computer with one printer in the kitchen,” Sosa said. “At the new restaurant, we have five computers. When we first opened, that (system) crashed completely. The first weekend, it was a nightmare — the kitchen kept losing tickets. I didn’t know what to do — cry or what.”
Now, he says, he has a backup system that’s kept such problems from recurring.
The fire had another unfortunate effect, he added: “We lost all the people who worked with us at the old restaurant. We had all new people. They didn’t know the menu, or they took wrong food to the table.”
Those troubles showed up in the kitchen, too, where Ernesto Ayala, Dora’s son by an earlier marriage, has taken up cooking Sosa’s recipes.
“(Say) you want to make a salsa. If you want to make a small batch, it’s fine. But if you need to make a big batch, it’s not the same if you just multiply by five,” Sosa said. “Some spices don’t work that way.”
His staff, he says, had to get a feel for his food.
“It takes time, especially when you have new people and they don’t know what the food is supposed to taste like. It tastes right to them, but not to a customer who loved the old Mi Tierra.”
A year on, Sosa says, he and his cooks have fixed those problems. Regular customers who only eat, say, enchiladas de mole, should now find just the same mole they knew and loved.
Sosa, however, is not content to settle into business as usual.
The tortilla-making has set Sosa on something of a crusade to incorporate local, preferably organic, ingredients into his food.
After he acquired his tortilla-making machine, Sosa went to California and toured a tortilla factory.
“I have a picture I always keep in my phone,” he said. He shows the screen. It’s a photo of the back of a bag of tortilla preservative. He says the ingredients don’t do anything good to the end product. “They put that in, and their nice yellow corn turned white.”
The effects, he says, don’t end there. “When I first came (to the U.S.), I bought some tortillas. I opened the bag and there was a strong, sour smell. You could smell everything else but corn.”
Sosa’s tortillas can’t compete with the months-long shelf life of most tortillas, but they pack a stout corn flavor and fragrance that sets them clearly apart. He’s also trying something new. Burritos come wrapped in flour tortillas for a simple reason: their gluten content makes their larger size possible. Corn just won’t stay together at that size. So Sosa is concocting his own version to make it possible, using rice and corn to produce a bigger end product.
Other changes on tap include the return of a dish that did well at the old Mi Tierra: sopes. Sopes are cousins to chalupas, basically a thick, chewy corn tortilla topped with beans, meat, sauce and cheese.
That and other dishes, particularly the chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), require significantly more effort to make, and that’s something Sosa believes Mi Tierra can take on now that it’s settled into the new space.
After the success of Mi Tierra’s Hadley corn tortillas, Sosa is eager to increase his ties to local agriculture. When the season allows, he uses native tomatoes, chiles and other produce.
With the abundance of corn available, the tortilla offerings have expanded to include organic corn, and now there’s a new addition: tamales.
Tamales use the same corn that produces tortillas, lime-soaked and ground “masa flour,” but in a different configuration. The corn is formed into a torpedo shape that’s filled with beans, cheese, vegetables, or meat, then steamed in a husk.
The result, at least at Mi Tierra, is dense, moist and satisfying.
Tamales have long been a street food — just give a spin to Robert Johnson’s blues tune “Hot Tamales,” from decades back — and Sosa is poised to offer organic corn Mi Tierra tamales at at least one local grocery, just as he did with tortillas.
“My mother used to make tamales in Mexico,” Sosa said. “She made really good tamales, but I think these are even better — we get really good quality corn, and better ingredients. The pork is farm-raised, and the black bean tamales use organic beans.”
That’s important to Sosa for personal and business reasons. “We have our family here — we’re eating here. Estela and Alejandra are growing up (with the restaurant). If Alejandra has a chicken burrito or a steak burrito, we want her to have good ingredients. We want to change the mentality that Mexican food is supposed to be cheap — something with a lot of cheese, wrapped in a flour tortilla.”
For Sosa, the restaurant’s recovery was just as personal. He says it brings him back to a difficult moment in his childhood. When he was around 14, Sosa says, he ran out of energy to swim when he was halfway across a river in Mexico. “I thought I was going to drown. It let me see many things. I asked myself, ‘How is my mother going to feel if I die?’ ”
With what little power he had left, Sosa kept going, and very soon his feet touched bottom. But his midstream reflections have stuck with him, and the loss of the restaurant brought him to a similar kind of thinking.
“When I was drowning, I thought, ‘Well, I hope I can just have the opportunity to do something good, to say I love you to my mom.’ It was the same thing here. I’m not rich — we don’t have lots of money. But we have the restaurant and we have the opportunity to help the community.”
As a result, one day per month a local organization gets the proceeds from at Mi Tierra. It began last September. “We take what it costs to make the dishes — maybe between 15 and 20 percent, and we give the rest,” Sosa said.
One of the organizations was Northampton’s Cancer Connection. It had personal resonance, he explains — Sosa’s sister, Teresa Perez, died of cancer last year. “We raised something like 2 or 3,000 dollars,” he said.
“I call it paying back the interest on the community’s investment.”
Sosa says he wants to keep the monthly events going. “We’re asking organizations who want to do something — let us know.”
On March 14, Easthampton’s Treehouse gets the proceeds, and others in the near future, Sosa says, will likely include CISA and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Following are two of Mi Tierra’s favorite dishes.
2½ pounds of pork butts cut into 2-inch cubes
32 ounces cooking oil
1½ oranges cut into slices
1½ limes cut into slices
6 bay leaves (more or less, depending on the size of leaves)
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons salt
32 ounces dark beer
In a pot, heat oil to medium.
Put the pork in with all ingredients except beer. Keep stirring.
After 20 minutes, add the beer, then reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 2½ hours.
Serve with tortillas, lime and chopped cilantro and onions.
Sopa De Mariscos
32 ounces water
4 small roma tomatoes
¼ white onion
3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
A little less than ¼ teaspoon cumin
Small potatoes, cut into cubes
2 bay leaves
1 uncooked lobster tail
3 uncooked shrimp
2 ounces calamari rings
2 ounces scallops
Small tilapia fillet
Optional: roasted guajillo or arbol pepper
Blend together water, tomatoes, onion, garlic, salt, cumin, and roasted pepper.
In a pot, heat the mixture, bay leaves and potato. When it gets to medium temperature and potatoes are soft, add the seafood, starting with the pieces that take longer to cook: mussels, clams. Then add shrimp and tilapia. Cook no more than 15 minutes.
Serve in a bowl with a side of tortillas, cilantro, onions and lime.
James Heflin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.