Food With Friends is the perfect way to describe these nights, because my close friends Jamie, Brittany and Allison aren’t the only ones involved. My friends are also behind the scene – offering some well-crafted meals in a sensational atmosphere.
This time I have the opportunity to write about my friend, Carlos Molina.
Molina is the owner/operator of La Mexicana, a cozy little Mexican restaurant. Located on U.S. Hwy. 49 within walking distance of the University of Southern Mississippi campus, La Mexicana is a wonderful spot for students and townspeople alike. Just two doors down is La Mexicana’s sister business, Tienda Los Molinas – a grocery and convenience store. His mother started the company in Glendale way back in 2000. Molina describes his mother as a go-getter and an entrepreneur. Her family came from poverty, and she worked hard for everything she had. When she moved to Mississippi, she immediately noticed a need for a Mexican grocery. It was the first Mexican store in Hattiesburg, and from it La Mexicana was born. Molina bought out the company in 2012 with his eyes on the future, and started working on a new storefront that felt like home – which leads us to the night the Food With Friends gang stopped by.
We arrived to Carlos’ welcoming smile, a huge table set up for us, and salsa music dancing across the air coming from the jukebox against the wall. As soon as I sat down at the table, I was greeted with three gorgeous looking beverages, each of which was made in house moments prior. I grabbed the mango juice, Brittany had a fresh squeezed lemonade, and Allison drank the sleeper hit of the evening – a delightful horchata. From the first sip, I knew that I was in for an exceptional night. Carlos’ love of tradition and passion for quality shines through as the natural sweetness of the mango juice provides for one of the most refreshing drinks I have had in years. We paired it with the warm, crispy tortilla chips, freshly made guacamole and creamy queso blanco dip, and we were off to a great start.
In no time at all, our first dishes appeared. Carlos had prepared us each a plate of sopes, a traditional Mexican dish. First, he takes a thick and fluffy tortilla, almost as thick as a small pancake. The tortilla is fried to a wonderful crispiness and covered in a base made of pinto beans. The sopes came in two varieties. One had tender al Pastor pork – which is marinated in pineapple, onions and different spices before being cooked to perfection – and the other had savory carne asada steak. They’re topped with lettuce, tomato, and cotija cheese. Let me tell you, I love cotija cheese.
THE FRESH PRINCE OF H’BURG
Did I mention yet that everything they make is made from scratch with fresh ingredients? Carlos goes to the Little Butcher Shoppe three times a week to get the finest cuts of meat. Once again, his attention to detail makes all of the difference, though he’s not alone in his quest for perfection. Halfway through our meal, we met Carlos’s right hand, his second-in-command – Isabel. Isabel is tasked with making sure every aspect of the restaurant in up to the standards Carlos expects, and she excels at her job.
Next to the table was a La Mexicana staple – their fantastic tamales. The tamales come in a variety of styles as far as the meat that goes into them, and every single type they make hits our table all at once. Two bottles – red and green hit the table with them. The green bottle is filled with a milder tomatillo sauce, but I could see the glint of excitement in Carlos’ eyes as he started talking about the red bottle. Made with a special type of chili pepper, Carlos said the red bottle brings the heat. He said it isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not one to back down from a challenge, so I gave the red bottle a try. He wasn’t lying. Isabel knows how to work with heat and produce a stunning flavor.
EVERY DAY SHOULD BE TACO TUESDAY
Carlos said throughout our time together that his main goal is to provide Hattiesburg with an option of authenticity. I’d wager to bet that you’d be hard pressed to find a person more authentic than he is. Together with Isabel, Carlos puts in the work to make his restaurant a success. La Mexicana can be seen working booths at major Hattiesburg events such as Hubfest, Live@5 and the Farmer’s Market. He displays the very same drive he used to work his way out of poverty in everything he does.
Take for example Taco Tuesday. Carlos wanted to offer the town great meals at great prices, so he started the event to offer people with tight budgets – like, say, the college students who live less than a mile away – a place to go without breaking the bank. With his delicious tacos for only $1, beer for $2, and margaritas for $3, he’s accomplished exactly that. We got to try all of the different types of tacos available. My favorite was the suadero, a bottom sirloin that takes a careful hand to cook correctly. Without the skill, it can become tough, but the suadero at La Mexicana is perfectly tender and flavorful. By this point, I was so full that I wished I had worn looser pants, and we weren’t even done yet.
SHRIMPIN’ AIN’T EASY
As we sat around the table cracking jokes and laughing about the trouble Carlos’ kids get into at school, our server brings out our last dish and Allison’s eyes lit up. “Aguacates Rellenos” (or Stuffed Avocado) is a beautifully ripe avocado half stuffed full of tasty shrimp ceviche. Brittany doesn’t much care for seafood, so she offered her plate to our photographer, John Scarpa. She didn’t have to ask twice. We paired this dish with another traditional drink that Carlos said is great for Sunday mornings following late Saturday nights, the Michelada. It was sort of like a Bloody Mary. Instead of tomato juice mixed with vodka, it was a peppery base onto which we poured a frosty Victoria lager. Carlos offered to bring out some of his homemade ice cream, but we simply couldn’t eat anymore.
SAY GOODNIGHT GANG
We finished the night snapping photographs with John and thanking Carlos and Isabel profusely. We knew we had all experienced something truly special at this unassuming Mexican restaurant. We had experienced love for the food, a true passion for it. It showed through every part of the feast we enjoyed. I went home and immediately fell into a food coma that lasted 12 straight hours. Even still, I’m planning on going back tonight.