From Guadalajara to Ciudad del Agua
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L to R: Carlos Jr., Carlos, Pepe and Donny Vega
L to R: Carlos Jr., Carlos, Pepe and Donny Vega

Carlos Vega named the three restaurants he owns in Eastern South Dakota after the city of his birth — Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. But the feeling you get when you walk into a Guadalajara on a wintry day in Sodak — of having stumbled into a tropical, sunshiny alternate world — is all Tonalá.

The Guadalajaran suburb of Tonalá (which, with over 374,000 souls, is more populous then the ten biggest cities in SD, but whatever) is a mecca for artists and artisans. Home to the Museo Nacional de la Cerámica, the burg's renowned for its pottery, and has been a center of ceramic arts since pre-Hispanic times. At Thursday and Sunday art markets, visitors can shop for traditional bruñido, bandera, petatillo and canelo style pottery and other handicrafts.

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Over the years, Esther Vega, wife to Carlos, has made innumerable trips to Tonalá to curate the unmistakeable ambience of a South Dakota Guadalajara — shipping back ornately carved tables, benches and chairs, metal sculpture, pottery, and decorative art by the truckload. Almost every object has the cheery gleam of a burnished (bruñido) urn. To open the door to a Guadalajara is to unleash a Nahuatl sunbeam, which can be a welcome respite from the beige of a long winter. The place hums with an ebullient energy. Even in summer, when the Glacial Lakes glisten and the prairie is a verdant green, Guadalajara just might be the wellspring of color where the cormorants score the emerald in their eyes.

So how does a working class guy from Guadalajara end up a restaurateur in eastern South Dakota? Carlos migrated to Seattle in the late 80s to work with his brother Pepe at a restaurant owned by Pepe’s father-in-law.

“He started from the bottom,” Pepe (who recently moved from Seattle to manage the Brookings restaurant) says of Carlos, a man of few words. "He worked as a dishwasher…”

Carlos: “Dishwasher, cook, busboy, waiter, manager…”

Pepe: “He went up and up every position. He worked really hard to get to where he is right now.”

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In the early nineties, Carlos became intrigued by talk of a land of lakes to the East.

Carlos: “Some customers of Pepe’s had moved to Watertown and they said that it was a nice town for business.”

Pepe: “They told me, ‘Come to Watertown, they don’t have any Mexican businesses there.’”

In 1995, Carlos left Seattle to address that situation. The brothers' hunch about Watertown turned out to be right, at first. The opening year was good. But the winter of 1996 put a deep freeze on many business aspirations throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota, and almost ended Guadalajara.

Carlos: “Those were really hard years with the snow.”

Pepe: “The winter was really hard, when you hardly have enough to pay your employees. It was very difficult.”

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Then the return of American pelicans to Watertown from their wintering grounds — perhaps on the Lago de Chapala — heralded spring. Carlos figured growth could be the antidote to snow. Guadalajara expanded to Madison, where it failed, but then found its footing in Brookings, where a couple of generations of college students have studied the extensive menu. He opened a store, El Tapatio, specializing in Mexican groceries next to the Brookings restaurant. Four years ago, the burgeoning Guadalajara mini-chain expanded to Sioux Falls.

With each new restaurant, Esther’s holistic, straight-from-Tonalá approach to the Guadalajara experience endears a new corps of loyal customers.

So, how’s the food? Your correspondent is not a food critic with the expertise to dive into culinary minutiae, so suffice it to say it’s plentiful and delicious. My finicky eight-month old daughter loved the lengua (so did I), which is all the endorsement I need.

Carlos’ sons Carlos Junior and Donny are both involved in the business now, and the restaurants are established enough to allow Carlos Sr. and Esther to visit Guadalajara 3 or 4 times a year, giving Esther plenty of opportunities to scour the art markets. Carlos Jr. says he can see Guadalajara making further inroads into South Dakota in the future. Where? That’s a family secret for now. “Somewhere close to home," he says.