Taqueria la Bonita
For Araceli Ortega, the owner and founder of Taqueria La Bonita, only two dishes remind her of her hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico — barbacoa and pozole.
The first is marinated beef slowly cooked with avocado leaves and a blend of Guajillo, Ancho, Morita and Árbol peppers for some kick, then wrapped in banana leaves to cook for 10 hours and stuffed inside a corn tortilla. It's one of the popular dishes served at her authentic Mexican restaurant in the east end of Ottawa. The second is a rich winter soup with pork and corn, topped with fresh lettuce and sliced radishes.
“Mexican food is addictive,” Ortega says with a laugh. “Once you try it, you can’t stop eating it.”
She says her mole (a Mexican sauce with chocolate and a blend of bold spices) can take up to six to eight hours to prepare.
“The dishes are complicated to make,” Ortega says, “but if you really want to respect the Mexican cuisine — don’t play around.”
She moved to Canada in 2008 because she wanted to learn another language, explore Canadian culture and most importantly, to see snow.
Ortega wasn’t able to find any restaurants that served Mexican food that reminded her of home. And thus La Bonita was born.
She chose the name La Bonita, which means beautiful woman in Spanish, because it’s easy for her non-Spanish speaking customers to pronounce and it adds a feminine touch to the restaurant. Most importantly, it is a word that has been a part of her life since she was a child.
“It is always warm, the touch of a woman,” she says. “I want [to exude] the feeling that they’re coming home.”
In Mexican culture, the woman is the centre of the family and Ortega says her mother provided a nurturing environment that She wants to emulate in her restaurant.
Ortega has a subtle luminance about her. Her long earrings jingle in perfect unison with the way she talks. With high cheekbones, flushed cheeks and glossy dark brown hair tied in a loose bun, Ortega is the embodiment of La Bonita.
She describes herself as quite shy, which is a complete contrast to the interior of her restaurant. As soon as you step inside, you are immediately greeted with upbeat Spanish music. The interior is vibrant and colourful with knick-knacks and souvenirs from Mexico lining the walls.
Ortega says she wanted to share the authentic Mexican cuisine she grew up eating with the Ottawa community.
It started out as a takeout stand in 2014 and has since expanded to a sit-down restaurant.
Growing up, her father did most of the cooking in her house. As a businessman, cooking was his hobby. Ortega says he inspired her to become a chef and restaurant owner and her attention to detail with the business came from him.
“My father always said, ‘Whatever you do, just make sure it’s the best,” she says.
When asked if she has ever experienced any discrimination being a woman in the restaurant business, she says she hasn’t noticed. “I don’t know, I don’t pay attention,” she says matter-of-factly. “When I’m focused on something, I just do it.”
Ortega’s determination is seen in every aspect of her business. She says she doesn’t rely on her chefs to keep the business going, unlike some restaurants in the industry where if the chef goes, the business goes with them.
“I thought, ‘That will never happen to me’,” she says.
Three chefs have been working alongside Ortega for more than a year — they continue to polish their craft and master her recipes.
With Ortega’s culinary skills and passion for food, she says she wouldn’t mind putting on an apron and taking over in the kitchen, as long as the restaurant kept running. Plus, her hardworking team of all-female servers is always there to support her.
“I promised her from the beginning, ‘I’m going to help you’,” says Adriana Lozano, the head server at La Bonita.
Lozano has worked with Ortega for more than three years. They met while taking an English class to improve their pronunciation and Ortega offered Lozano her first job since coming to Canada from Cali, Colombia.
Not only is Ortega extremely hardworking, but according to Lozano, the owner’s secret talent is perfecting recipes.
“I am always open to change,” Ortega says. “My dishes are always improving.” About half of the recipes on La Bonita’s menu are centuries-old family recipes and the other half are common dishes that every Mexican knows how to make.
The blend of old and new clearly hits home with the customers as Ortega is set to open her second location at 1079 Wellington St. West in Hintonburg. She is taking over the lease of the current taqueria, La Cocina Loca.
Ortega and her team are fully behind the expansion.
“I have to be here to see that,” Lozano says. “I’m going to be here for a long time because I promised her.”
Ortega says her staff is an integral part of the restaurant — they represent La Bonita to her.
“I’m the heart, but they’re the blood,” she says.
Taqueria La Bonita
1128 Cadboro Rd.; 1079 Wellington St., Ottawa, Ont.