Cobden, a town of roughly 1,000 located on the rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest, is a popular destination due to its many orchards and wineries while being a short drive to many popular hiking spots such as Giant City State Park and Little Grand Canyon trail.
Its school has a storied athletics past, previously winning a state championship in baseball. But, nestled on Appleknocker Drive, you’ll find a small orange prefabricated shed with two windows — the “Taqueria Pequeña” or the “Little House of Tacos.”
Maria Concepcion Bartolo arrived in the rural Southern Illinois in 1975 as a 23-year-old migrant agricultural laborer, looking for a better life for her two young daughters, whom she’d left back home in Michoacan, a Mexican state in the central western portion of the country. After working for years, Maria said, she had a dream of having her own restaurant. That dream became a reality in 2004.
“We decided to open the taqueria because I was tired of working other places,” she said in Spanish, noting the endeavor was a bit of a gamble. “I wanted my own thing. I wanted to know if it was something I could do, but luckily it’s gone well since the first day.”
Esteban Bartolo echoed his mother’s sentiments. He said the community response to their food has been good over the years. “Over time, we’ve just gotten more and more busy and popular to the point sales have increased by 60% if not more over the years,” he said. “But not only that, there would be times where we had 50 customers over the day and more recently, it’s been more like 100 to 300.”
If you ask Maria about what makes her food special, she’ll tell you it’s just like the food she makes at home. It's the fact that it’s “almost not special,” Esteban said, adding the restaurant prides itself on their food’s simplicity and authenticity instead of overseasoning or trying to introduce too many flavors into a dish.
The savory aroma of steak and chorizo sizzling on the stovetop dances through the air with the smell of freshly chopped onions and cilantro. Esteban takes an order through the window as his mother and two other employees sling the tacos together.
Bob Isaacs brought his wife, Tracy, to the taqueria for the first time after driving down nearly five hours from New Lenox, Illinois to visit his family’s farm. “I usually get tacos, and every once and awhile the burrito,” he said. Tracy said every time her husband visits Cobden he raves about the tacos, and Bob adds they’re just “quick and easy.”
Amber Berry drove nearly half an hour to the restaurant from Murphysboro in an attempt to get some of the restaurant’s tamales — seasoned meat and salsa wrapped in cornmeal dough and steamed or baked in corn husks. Unfortunately, they were sold out.
“The tamales are to die for, which is why they’re sold out, you have to get here early for that,” Berry said, describing them as “homemade Mexican goodness.” She said the food at the Cobden-based restaurant is “traditional Mexican,” which may differ from what you may get in other places.
Tamales have historically been so popular because “they’re comforting, they’re a lot of food for very little money, they’re nutritious ... and it’s just something that has been around the American landscape for so long,” said Gustavo Arellano, a feature writer for the Los Angeles Times and author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”
Aside from tamales, The Little House of Tacos brings all sorts of authentic Mexican cuisine to the table, including tortas — Mexican sandwiches made with a crusty bread roll — quesadillas, tacos and much more. The passion for Mexican food in the United States isn’t a new one, and dates back more than a century.
Arellano said the flashpoint for the spread of Mexican food in the United States was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. That is where the first two famous Mexican dishes — tamales and chili, originally called chile con carne — were really introduced to the rest of the United States. “After that, chili parlors started opening up across the United States and tamale man vendors spread out across the United States, including the Midwest,” he said.
The culture surrounding food is an integral one for the Hispanic community, Maria said, because “more than anything, people want to remember the food they eat in Mexico and remember a bit of home.” Arellano shared similar sentiments and said food is “fundamental to who you are as a culture, and it’s the same thing with Mexican food — it’s the mark of your identity.”
Many have said food at large has been an instrumental tool in connecting cultures. “I would say it really does a good job of exposing people to something they may have never had before,” Esteban said. Arellano said connecting through food is the easiest way to get people from who are not the same culture to start talking. “It’s that old metaphor that’s let's make a place at the table for everyone,” he said.”
Despite grappling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food establishments, Esteban said the taqueria on Appleknocker Drive has been doing well and the Southern Illinois region has been out in full support.
“Thanks to the people and to God, we’re still here,” Maria said. “If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t come.”
The “Taqueria Pequeña” or “Little House of Tacos” can be found at 105 S. Appleknocker Drive in Cobden, Illinois. The restaurant only accepts cash payments.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Cobden had won a state basketball title.
On Twitter: @brianmmunoz
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