Cassi Miller | Monday Aug. 1st, 2016
I’ll say one thing about Bozeman foodies: we are as loyal as can be. If people in this town absolutely love a restaurant, they will follow it to the ends of the earth. They’ll go through location moves, hour changes, menu modifications, and so much more if the food and the service are worth it. One of the most loyal followings a restaurant can have in this town belongs to La Tinga Restaurant. You don’t have to look much further than a quick Google search and you’ll read through pages and pages of glowing reviews, of people obsessing over their addiction to the food there. People love La Tinga, voted Bozeman’s Choice Mexican Food 2015, and it’s easy to see why. The quality and authenticity of the food, the bright open space, and the smiling face of Alba Jeffries will instantly have you loving this bright little restaurant and their handcrafted cuisine. I cruised down Baxter Lane on a beautiful Thursday afternoon to have a little chat with Alba about her passion for La Tinga and the people who eat there. Over an ice cold glass of Jarritos mandarin soda, a recommendation from Alba that I’m glad I took, I was instantly charmed.
CM: Tell me a bit about your history with food. What got you into the restaurant business?
AJ: Well, I actually am a CPA by education. Numbers and taxes were my love. Yes, I love doing taxes. And, I actually wasn’t that interested in cooking until I met my husband. We met in Juarez, Mexico. He’d studies and graduated from Butte Tech., and was then doing social work in El Paso. We met and three and half months later we were married. He asked me where I wanted to live and I told him Montana. Even though I’d only been there once, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. So, we did it. I began cooking while waiting for my citizenship paperwork to be accepted. While you’re waiting on your green card, you actually can’t work, so I used it as sort of a mini vacation. I was cooking a lot. One day, Curt came home after I’d made my tinga dish and he loved it. He said “You know, Alba, we could sell this.” He helped my find my passion and fall in love with food. We built our life in Montana on that.
CM: Why Bozeman? What do you like about being a part of this community?
AJ: It all goes back to that one trip I took to Montana before we moved here. We traveled to Montana for a wedding of one of Curt’s friends, and there was this table full of women there, sitting and talking and laughing. I admired them. They were strong women, they were intelligent, and they were independent. I thought “I can learn from them. I want to be a part of this.” It completely influenced my decision to move here.
When we got here, there was no Mexican food in Bozeman. That was 13 year ago. Now of course, there are more choices, but we really saw an opportunity here, so we began planning everything. We wanted to start out in a food truck, kind of like some of the ones you see in Bozeman today, but we realized there were a lot of risks with a truck. Things happen that you can’t control, like the weather in Montana. Then, we had the opportunity to be a part of the Valley Ice Garden, during their hockey season, selling food. People loved it. We were also doing catering. Since we didn’t really have a kitchen of our own, Frank from Frank’s Catering and Kitchen offered us his space when he wasn’t using it for his own food preparation. He was wonderful about it. We were really grateful. So, we’d cook there, depending on our schedules and transport our food to where it needed to be. From there, we were in the Armory for about seven or eight months. Then, Pete from La Parilla and the Garage approached us about a shared downtown space. They would sell ice cream and we could use the space to house La Tinga. That’s where we were able to really build a following.
CM: So then, tell me about the move to this space? What drew you here?
AJ: Well, once things went a different direction downtown, we really wanted to look for a location of our own. We saved and saved and bought two lots here out on Baxter. My first priority was the kitchen. I wanted a kitchen all my own, custom built for me. We were continually saving all the money we could before we said let’s do it. Now, here we are. It’s been three years, but it doesn’t feel that long at all. We love this neighborhood and the people who come to our restaurant. This is our neighborhood now. The people are wonderful and extremely intelligent about the food. We’re constantly learn and doing more with our food, like attending a culinary school in Mexico, and people recognize that. They see the possibility and passion in what we make for them. We also love the views, being able to look out the windows and see all the wide open spaces. This area is just great.
CM: What would you say makes La Tinga unique to the Bozeman food scene?
AJ: It is definitely our food. With our basics, we use the same recipes that we’ve always used, that I’ve brought from Mexico, that constantly keep people coming back for more. We have the tinga recipes which everyone loves. Curt makes the beans and sometimes salsa, too. He really has that down. We also know people love spice in Mexican food and they love our hot salsa. Our uniqueness is also in our ability to create something new. If people aren’t ordering their favorite basic dish from our menu, it’s our specials that keep them coming back for more. We do dishes like chile rellenos and moles that people just love. So, we are able to keep the things people love, but also create new foods people will fall in love with once they try them.
CM: What do you want people to experience when they come here?
AJ: I want people to discover Mexico. I want people to discover Mexican flavors. This is my chance to give them an introduction to authentic Mexican food. Or, if they know food, they can have that authentic Mexican food they might be craving while in Montana. I also want people to be adventurous and try something new. My food is from Mexico City, which has a cuisine all its own, just like different locations in the United States all have different flavors. Like, if you go to Louisiana, you expect a certain kind of food. If you go to Seattle, you expect a different kind of food. So, when you know chefs come from different areas, you expect that type of cuisine when they cook. Mexico is the same way and our customers recognize that in my cooking. We also don’t want them to be scared to try anything. Try something new. Try something spicy. The spicier the better!
CM: Who doesn’t love spicy Mexican food?! So, any upcoming events or specials readers should know about?
AJ: Well we just recently did the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, which was really great. We were actually there helping out La Tinga Billings, and we will be back again. That was our first time and it was such a fun event. We loved all the people and music. We are always looking to do catering and private parties, though our availability is filling up fast. We have two pretty big parties in the works now and we’re hoping to have more information on those once the details come together. Mostly, we just hope people keep coming here and enjoying our food!
As I drove away from La Tinga that day, sent on my way with an “Adios, senorita!” from Alba, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I kept thinking about how excited I was for my next visit there, knowing what I know now about Alba and her passion for her husband and her cooking. Alba is such a genuine person and owner. She loves what she does and she wants others to love it, too. You get that refreshing sense just from talking to her and you definitely get that from eating the food she serves at La Tinga. Her loyal Bozeman customers already know that, and it’s my hope that more and more people will visit La Tinga to experience Alba’s authentic taste of Mexico.