The Matriarch Behind the ScenesOct 12, 2016 05:00AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
The bright flavors and colors of Hidalgo, Mexico, pop at family-owned and operated Maria Bonita Mexican Cuisine. Matriarch and head chef Miriam Lopez authentically re-creates the food she recalls from her native land.
Tropical floral motifs by Omaha artist Mike Giron decorate the 5132 L St. restaurant, as well as the family's two food trucks.
"The colors not only inspire us and make us remember where we come from but also transmit some of our culture and the way we envision life, which is colorful and positive," eldest daughter Itzel Lopez says. "Our culture is really within us."
She and her two sisters help mom continue a proud legacy of strong, accomplished Latinas.
Miriam and husband Miguel opened the eatery in 2011 at 20th Street and Missouri Avenue. Business boomed before Miguel fell ill.
"He was our backbone," Itzel says. "For us, family's always been more important than business, so we said, 'Let's take a break and get our dad where he needs to be.'"
Maria Bonita closed; however, the customers refused to leave. Itzel says, "Our customers really didn't let us go, but the only way we could continue what we'd started was to go on wheels. So, we acquired our first food truck right in 2011, and in 2014 we acquired our second food truck."
A new brick and mortar was sought to serve sit-down diners and to prep-host catering gigs. Thus, the former Sizzler site became the new Maria Bonita in 2015.
"Same food, same concept, just bigger," says Itzel.
They opened it with help from the Nebraska Enterprise Fund. With Miguel recuperating in Mexico, Miriam wants it to be like coming to the Lopez casa for "a home-cooked family meal," adding, "The kitchen is the home of the home."
"These are dishes my mom will cook at home," Itzel says. "Everything my mom does she makes with love. Mom wants to see tables full of families enjoying a good dinner. That's something we grew up with. Every Sunday after church we come and enjoy our own food here."
Miriam says she doesn't use "complicated recipes, processes, and ingredients," adding, "This is very different—this is simple food the way I remember when I was a kid. My memories are all about food—about my mom all the time cooking for everybody."
She inherited her mom's cooking talent, and her folks paid for culinary training. She worked as a line cook in Mexico and America. "All the time I was learning—I learned a lot." Even though the hours are long, she finds joy. "All the time people ask me, why you work so hard? But I don't feel like I'm working. It's special—that's the difference. They think it's for the money, but it's not for the money. It's passion. I love this. It's my dream."
Miriam's college-educated daughters have jobs and lives of their own, and she wants them to be successful.
"It's my faith for them. Happiness is everything."
"We move by faith in our family," says Itzel. "We're just hard working women. All we have to do is just follow that."
Itzel says she admires her mother's "consistency and perseverance" and how "she molds the family to the same mission."
“We’re a good team, each with different roles and strengths, all of us guided by Mom and her passion for food."
Mother and daughter are "proud" their family of "Mexican transplants and language learners" has come so far here.
A rotating traditional Mexican buffet is served daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Visit mariabonitaonline.com for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha