For 19 years and 11 months, Teresa Velasco, known as Doña Tere, has cooked all the food at her restaurant inside Doña Tere Market on the corner of 21st and Florida streets.
Generally, she walks from her house at Bryant and 26th streets and arrives at her restaurant around 11 a.m. to decide what she feels like cooking that day. First, however, she starts by cleaning the kitchen. Next, she makes rice, beans, and tortillas for the day. And finally, she pulls a recipe from memory to make the two homestyle dishes for the day, which she will have on hand to serve her hungry customers, many of them regulars.
On the Wednesday we met, Doña Tere decided to make chiles rellenos stuffed with queso de Monterey, which she serves with two house-made corn tortillas, beans, rice, and super-spicy chile rojo salsa, all for $13 a plate. On the weekends, she makes pozole. On other days, her repertoire includes mole with chile rojo (mole with red chile), or nopales con castillo de puerco (cactus with pork chops). Or sometimes caldo de camarones (shrimp soup).
“If she’s not here, people will not come. They want the food from her,” her 45-year-old daughter Irma explained as I arrived at the market where regular customers come in for a plate of steak or a handmade quesadilla and sit at the chairs and tables in the front, sipping a soda and enjoying their food.
Photographs from her seven grandchildren’s quinceaneras and weddings hang on the wall, and Mexican food items such as Jarritos sodas, Pulparindo candy and masa fill the shelves.
Doña Tere, who is 70, has been living in the United States for 45 years. She spent her first three decades in San Buenaventura, Jalisco, alongside her nine brothers and sisters. “We washed and ironed clothes in the river for people so we could cook food,” she said.
It was there that she learned from her mother to make perfect tortillas and tamales. Her father, a campesino, worked in agriculture, planting crops and caring for cows.
She left for the United States with one of her sisters to create a better life. For 19 years, before opening her own restaurant, Doña Tere sold fruit on the streets of the Mission.
Then, on July 1, 2001, she rented the space at 21st and Florida and began selling food out of the kitchen there.
She started with tostadas and flautas. Now, she serves tacos, pupusas and tortas as well as Mexican homestyle dishes of her choosing, such as sopa de res, mole, or pipian, a dish similar to mole.
The pandemic failed to stop her.
“We were open the whole time; we never closed for one day,” Doña Tere said matter-of-factly in Spanish while separating egg yolks from whites in her kitchen.
“I like being in the kitchen a lot,” she said before showing me how to make chiles rellenos, and offering me tastes of carnitas and nopales from big pots simmering on the stove.
“First, you heat up the oil,” she said, pouring oil into a big pan over the gas stove. As that heated up, she prepared the egg mixture for the batter for the green chiles.
Next, she added the egg whites to the yolks, and blended them with a handheld blender until they were super light and fluffy.
As she was cooking, a friend came in and told her she had an order for two chicken tacos “dorado,” or with the tortilla crispy with oil.
So she paused her Chile Relleno project and pressed masa under her wooden tortilla press for the tacos.
“Here, we all work!” Doña Tere told me as her friend, Marta Vasquez, of more than 18 years, swept the kitchen floor, and a newer friend, Jose Santos, carried boxes of produce into the storeroom.
Back to the chiles rellenos: she filled them with Monterey cheese, then fried them until the batter turned a golden brown and put them aside, ready for customers to come in.
Aside from running the restaurant, Doña Tere has also raised four kids, now ages 47, 45, 38, and 30. To her, life is simple: She loves her children and her family, and she loves cooking.
Nowadays, two of her children still live in the neighborhood. One of them, Irma Duran, unemployed due to the pandemic, helps out at the market. She is in charge of handling the lease renewal, which is up in July. So far, they have not heard from the landlord that changes will be made, and are hopeful they will remain open.
When the health inspector advised Doña Tere to stay home during the pandemic, she insisted on coming in to work. Then she was hospitalized for surgery and forced to stay home, but days after, her daughter couldn’t keep her away from the kitchen.
“She refuses to stay home,” her daughter said.
“If I am in the house, what am I going to do all day? I am happy here!” Dona Tere said.
Old friends and family will stop by to help Doña Tere to fill small containers of salsa or take out the garbage. Her best girlfriends will come and chat toward the end of the day. No one asks to be paid. Instead, they get food and Doña Tere’s love.
Doña Tere’s recipe for chile rellenos, as told to me in Spanish while cooking
(Translated to English)
- Chile pasilla
- Cheese (queso de Monterey)
- Oil for frying
- All-purpose flour
- Chicken broth
Preparing the peppers:
- Roast the peppers over an open flame, such as a gas stove, for three minutes on each side, until they are almost black. Doña Tere often puts them in a dishcloth or a plastic bag for a few minutes to let them steam after she takes them off the flame. This makes it easier to remove the outer layer of the skin.
- Peel the peppers, removing the outer layer of skin as much as possible.
- Cut a slit down the middle using a knife or your fingers.
Stuffing the peppers:
- Stuff the peppers with chopped queso de Monterey
- Using a toothpick, patch the “seam” of the chile.
Frying the chiles rellenos
- Heat the oil for frying in a large saucepan.
- Separate the egg whites from the yolks into two bowls. Doña Tere uses her hands as a strainer to separate the yolks from the egg whites.
- Slowly add the egg yolks to the whites and beat, using an electric hand mixer, until stiff peaks form. Doña Tere keeps the electric mixer running in the side of the bowl as she continues on to the next steps. This ensures the egg mixture stays stiff and foamy.
- Roll the stuffed peppers into the flour mixture, dip them in the egg batter, and place them in the hot oil to fry.
- Fry the peppers for a few minutes on each side until they are golden brown.
- Place them on a plate to drain and serve with rice, beans, and salsa! (Recipe below.)
Doña Tere’s salsa for chiles rellenos
- Heat a pan over medium heat.
- Add two tablespoons of flour and a whole chopped onion.
- Sauté until golden brown.
- Add a cup of chicken stock.
- Place four tomatoes in a plastic bag, and then microwave them until they’re mushy.
- Add tomatoes to the pan with the other ingredients, and then season with salt to taste, keeping in mind that the chicken broth is salty and it may not need more salt.
*This is not a spicy salsa, so if you want spice, you can add your favorite hot sauce or a simple chile rojo salsa.
Doña Tere’s Market is located at 2780 21st St., and is open every day from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.