Written by Karen Wang Diggs after an interview with Marco in 2021.
This is the first of a series of true tales of family and food from people who ferment.
El Norteño: Marco’s Story
Snip, snip, snip. Three inches of my hair fell to the floor and my head felt two pounds lighter as Marco casually mentions that his grandmother’s molé is the best molé there is, and I asked him why doesn’t he make it, and he said that it’s the original recipe that she cooked in her restaurant in Acapulco, and that it was very complicated.
Restaurant in Acapulco? His grandmother was a restaurateur?
Marco has cut my hair for over 10 years, and we’ve hung out at bars lounging over martinis while discoursing poets from Hafiz to Lorca. Agonized over politics, and consoled each over tales of love and lost, but I had no idea that his people were foodies! Hello!
I asked him to tell me more and thus come out the story of Guadalupe Robles, actually his great grand mother, who used a machete to clear an area on a beach in Acapulco and set up five tables and a big coal burning cauldron. Of a widow who wrapped her two children in blankets and tossed them into a horse drawn cart and traveled across Mexico to find refuge and success amongst swaying palm trees, hot sand, and blue sea. Of three generations united by cooking; the generosity of hosting guests over food and libations, of love, and ultimately unavoidable change…forced upon them by corruption and cartels.
Guadalupe with Marco
Guadalupe Robles was married in 1931, and lost her husband only after three years. With two young children, she was desperate to protect them from the violence of the Civil War and bands of Cristeros who roamed the Northern states poised to rape and pillage for the sake of turning people away, ironically, against the violence of the Catholic church.
Upon hearing from her younger vagabond brother that life in Acapulco was peaceful and a living could be made, she gathered her few belongings, readied her two children and journeyed for days across Mexico, braving the difficult crossing of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain ranges that separated Acapulco from the rest of Mexico and made her way to a new life.
As a child, Guadalupe learned to cook because it was her duty and many dishes she grew up with were instilled in her mind. No written recipes were necessary. All she needed were ingredients, a stove, and hungry mouths to feed. And so it was that El Norteño came to be.
It was just natural that Guadalupe would not hesitate to clear away a jungle of vines with her own hands, make space to accommodate a few tables and chairs, build a crude stove, and a working area to clean, chop, and prepare her Northern specialties to those sun drenched southerners who had never tasted unctuous molé infused with ten different chillis, enchanting sweet spices, and heady cacao. Onions soaked in cold water to take away the edge, and then made soft and sweet with a dash of cloves. Local fresh prawns and fish juxtaposed with the heat of garlic, jalapeño, and ground cumin.
The food at El Norteño instantly captivated the palates of Acapulco, and Guadalupe became a successful woman entrepreneur in 1934 by clearing her way with a machete, an innate talent for cooking, and the determination to change the course of her life and that of her children.
Larry Roth was sent to Vietnam in 1962 and while on furlough, happened to see a musical comedy,“Fun in Acapulco” starring Elvis Presley and Ursula Andress. It was one of the top grossing movies of 1963. Elvis plays Mike Windgren, a former high-wire circus performer, turned lifeguard who ends up in Acapulco where he dives off a 136-foot cliff (despite suffering from post-traumatic syndrome from fear of heights, having fallen off his circus high-wire act some years ago), and wins the heart of Margarita, a local beauty.
Larry had to go to Acapulco! He convinces two of his buddies to go with him, but two days before the trip, his friends bailed out. Undaunted, Larry proceeds on his own and lands on the sunny shores of Acapulco, hungry for adventures.
He was mesmerized by the scenery of lapping emerald blue waves and endless white sand and constantly hummed Bossa Nova Baby, the sound track from the Elvis movie that topped the Billboard charts.
Alicia Robles grew up helping her mother at El Norteño, and it was understood that she would take over the restaurant when Guadalupe was ready to retire. Alicia’s brother, Alberto, was just never dedicated enough and just too macho to settle into a life of cooking and managing a staff.
Alicia Robles (left), Evengelina Roth (right)
In 40 or so years, Guadalupe had turned five tables on a beach with one wood burning stove into a renown restaurant that drew in locals and visitors alike, serving hundreds of meals a day.
Until the early 1950’s, Acapulco had remained a hidden gem, even to Mexicans because of the difficulty of traveling across the mountain range, but when John and Jackie Kennedy went there on their honeymoon, the world very quickly got to know Acapulco, and the coming decades would bring fame and sustained financial success to Guadalupe’s restaurant on the beach.
( Not to mention Elvis and the making of Fun in Acapulco.)
And now with Alicia at the helms, and the building of the super highway connecting Mexico City to Acalupco, El Norteño soon became the busiest restaurant on the beach, and drew in politicians, actors, and celebrities of mysterious origins; all salivating over dishes such as Caldo de Mariscos and Cangrejo a la Diablo, accompanied by ice cold beer and hibiscus rose water.
Alicia married when she was just 16 years-old, but like her mother, became widowed soon after the marriage. Her first husband, an union activist was murdered by oppositions and so she put all her energies into the restaurant, and it was there that she met her second husband, Raul, who then became the grandfather whom Marco grew up with and remembers with much fondness.
Alicia and Raul were both devoted to running El Norteño and never turned away any guest no matter how late into the night they wanted to stay.
“I can still see bare light bulbs hanging on a string between palm trees illuminating the dark night as my grandfather sat with the last customer drinking whiskey and snacking on ceviche”, Marco reminisces.
And so it was, due to their passion and unstinting hospitality that El Norteño saw it’s most successful days on the 1970’s and 80’s.
Alicia’s oldest daughter, Evangelina, like her mother and grandmother, had a natural disposition towards hospitality and love of good food, so it was that she became the sibling who worked at the restaurant, helping out in all ways, but mainly doing duties ‘front of the house’. Due to her beauty, she attracted many admiring customers.
Larry enjoyed Acapulco, but was ready to leave with two days left on his vacation. Without his buddies, he was a little subdued in his actions. He decides to take another walk on the beach and had heard that El Norteño served steaks with raw clams. He was gamed to try it at least once, after all, he had to have some adventurous tale to tease his buddies over for having bailed on him.
He passed in front of El Norteño, and immediately saw the beautiful face of Evangelina as she sat behind the cash register. It was, simply put, love at first sight. He knew no Spanish, and Evengelina spoke very little English, but that didn't matter. Larry returned to the restaurant several times before leaving, and they corresponded by writing letters during the 3 years that Larry was still in the military posted to Vietnam and other places. They got married in New York in 1965, and have been together ever since. Marco is their only child.
Acapulco became mired in the violence and destruction of the drug cartels and although El Norteño is still there, Marco’s family sold it in the early 2000’s.
As with many buildings in Mexico, families don’t move out, they just keep adding to the property random rooms here and there, and his grandmother had built a room just for Marco, but with one wall left unconstructed as it enabled an unimpeded view of the beach from three stories above the main house. That was Marco’s view as he swayed gently on his hammock that was strung between two concrete pillars.
Marco hasn’t returned since the funeral of his grandmother, Alicia, in 1998.
He would rather keep the pristine memories of innocent childhood and happy memories of going to visit his family every year when he was a teenager helping out at the restaurant by waiting on tables. Of swinging on his hammock in the room with three walls and view of brilliant blue sea. And the smell of his grandmother’s molé simmering in the kitchen.
Recipes from Marco's grandmother, including one for molé, is coming soon!