La Unica offers a taste of Mexico from its corner in Moorhead
MOORHEAD — Amy Espinoza stands beside a tortilla machine, rolling balls of dough between her palms and feeding them into the gas-powered device that flattens, cooks and spits out tortillas on a conveyor belt.
As they exit, some are puffed up with air like small pillows.
"There's a saying," she says, "that if you get them to puff up, then your mother-in-law loves you."
Espinoza was making flour tortillas at La Unica Mexican Market, a grocery at 2615 12th Ave. S. in an out-of-the-way Moorhead industrial park. It is a small corner of Mexico in the Great White North.
The market sells dried chiles, spices, cheese, sausage, sweet breads, canned goods and bottles as well as non-food items, such as religious candles and pinatas. But it's the from-scratch foods that make the place special.
It's surprising considering that when Espinoza bought the store with her husband, "I didn't know how to cook," she said.
She devised most of the recipes herself with the help of staff, trial and error and an occasional telephone call to her grandmother in Texas.
"The recipe is just me closing my eyes and remembering how my mom did it," she said.
Espinoza and her team — Mary Ann Aguilar and Delicia Rodriguez on this day — make flour tortillas every Tuesday and Thursday. They start at 4 or 5 a.m. and finish by 10 a.m., when the store opens and they have to make lunch and tend to customers.
They start by making dough in a big mixer. The recipe is simple: flour, water, baking powder, Crisco and salt. They shape the dough into 3-pound balls and allow them to rise briefly before they flatten the dough and place it in a device that cuts and shapes it into small balls.
They planned to make 2,520 this day, enough for 210 packs of a dozen, but make more when preparing orders for the Hugo's supermarkets in the region that stock their tortillas. La Unica tortillas are also available at Larry's Supermarket in Pelican Rapids, Minn.
The week is divided by what foods need to be made. On Wednesdays, Espinoza and her staff make four varieties of tamales, corn dough (masa) wrapped around a filling and steamed in a corn husk. On Fridays, they make four varieties of salsa and get to work at night on barbacoa that's sold on weekends in tacos and 1-pound packages.
La Unica lacks seating, though it has picnic tables outside, and the market sells its limited lunches to-go on weekdays. There's a different special each day, with recent offerings including pork gorditas, enchiladas verdes and chicken in mole sauce.
On weekends, the business offers breakfast tacos and gorditas, a stuffed pastry made with corn dough.
"It's a beautiful feeling, a cultural feeling that you get on the weekend," Espinoza said. "You get the Mexican music playing in the background. You've got families coming for tortillas, people who haven't seen each other for months, sitting outside, having breakfast and talking."
Espinoza, 34, grew up in Big Wells, Texas, about an hour from the Mexican border. When she was 13, her family moved to Minnesota—both her parents had siblings in the area—and the family eventually moved to Moorhead.
The 2002 graduate of Moorhead High School met her husband the summer before her senior year after convincing her reluctant parents to let her do seasonal farm work in Indiana with friends. Her husband, Juan, who grew up in Mexico and Texas, traveled to Indiana each summer for the same reason.
They met and fell in love that month. After returning home, they wrote and talked by phone. At age 16, Juan moved to Minnesota, and Espinoza soon got pregnant. Juan got a job at Northern Pipe in Fargo, and the couple married in 2007. They now have four children.
After high school, Espinoza got a job at Motivation, Education and Training, a nonprofit that provides academic and vocational training to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. At the time, the Red River Valley had more seasonal workers because of labor demands to weed sugar beet fields, a necessary task reduced by the development of beets tolerant to the herbicide Roundup.
Espinoza worked at MET for more than a decade and became its workforce development coordinator. But as the area's migrant population dwindled, need for its services diminished. That's when the opportunity to buy La Unica came up.
The business first opened in the 1990s as the Jimenez Tortilla Factory. Paul Bakkum bought it in 2004 and changed its name. La Unica means "unique" or "only," and it's been the area's only Mexican market for most of its existence.
One day, a client at MET who worked at La Unica told Espinoza that the market might be closed. Espinoza told her husband she wanted to buy it. He was wary, but she convinced him.
"I told him that when a baby bird is in its nest, it says to itself, 'Am I going to be able to fly or am I going to fall?' " she recalled. "I said, 'If we never take a chance, we're never going to be able to fly high.' "
MET closed its Moorhead office in February 2013, and they bought La Unica in March.
Espinoza had never run a business and knew little about cooking. She added more groceries and kept the store open more consistent hours. She taught herself to cook. She developed new recipes and tinkered with others.
Espinoza decided to offer lunch after construction workers came into the store looking for a meal. The staff made them tacos. The workers came back and brought friends, and Espinoza made lunch a daily feature.
She works at least 80 hours a week, including every other weekend. Her husband, Juan, still works full time at Northern Pipe, but helps at La Unica when he's available.
But they have their limits. Amy comes in early to make tortillas and tamales so she can return home at 7:30 a.m. to get her kids ready for school. She won't keep the store open nights because it would get interfere with family life, and she doesn't want to think about expanding the business until her youngest son starts school.
"There's always time to make money," she said. "There's never enough time to make good memories with family."