Before sitting down to talk about her restaurant, Aracelia Duncan places a mass of dough the size of a small load of laundry in a bowl and covers it. The dough is destined for tortillas, which Aracelia makes by hand six days a week. Even though she's only a few hours away from the beginning of the dinner hour on a Friday, she doesn't seem worried about the work involved in producing dozens of the warm, mottled disks of bread. "I think I've always been making tortillas," she says smiling, as she sits down. "Ever since I could walk, I know I've been making tortillas - as far back as I can remember. I love making them."
Aracelia's affection for food is inseparable from her Mexican heritage. Growing up in Texas, she grew up in her grandmother's restaurant. "I just remember liking it as a little girl - liking the kitchen, and seeing what she could do with food. And my other grandmother liked to bake, so I inherited both talents - baking and cooking. I love to do it all."
This is Aracelia's sixteenth year cooking in Spokane. She opened her first restaurant downtown on Stevens, moving nine years later to the Schade Towers just east of downtown on Trent. Three years ago she opened Aracelia's II on Trent in the Valley, and her son Tony took over the Schade kitchen. Now Aracelia herself divides her time between her two locations.
"When I first opened the restaurant," she explains, "I wanted to create a unique green sauce that no other Mexican restaurant had. And nobody has it yet." Served over her enchiladas, Aracelia's green sauce is equally fragrant and substantial, serving a dual role as both backdrop and accent for her enchiladas. "I think I had a good idea when I first made it. It was good right away. But it got better as I went along. And at first it was only mild, but we've since made it hotter, and now people can order mild, medium, or hot versions of it."
It's not only Aracelia's innovations, however, that keep people coming back to her restaurant.
"Don't you feel that when you go to a restaurant it should be the way that you want it," she asks, "and not the way that the restaurant or the server wants it? Do you want to just eat something called a 'Number Five,' or do you want to eat the food that you want? I've always thought that since we've got all of the ingredients in the kitchen, there is no reason we shouldn't make people happy and pamper them."
As an example, she mentions her beans. Served whole, in a rich gravy, they are significantly different than the mush that serves as standard refried beans in most Mexican restaurants. "I didn't want to serve refried beans because I didn't want to serve all that lard," she laughs. "I wanted to stay away from that. People are more oriented to good, healthy food, and I can cook the beans so that they taste good and don't have lard. But I have refried beans available, because people might want them. But most people end up liking these beans once they try them."
But Aracelia is quick to point out that a sense of tradition is something that she continues to put in her food, even as she personalizes and updates it. "One thing that sticks in my mind is rice," she says. "My grandmother said that every small grain should open up like a flower. And that still sticks with me. I told that to my son, and now he thinks about it. And it's true." It's a perfect example of what sets Aracelia, and anyone else who cooks with passion, apart from other creators. A poet may be able imagine fear in a handful of dust. Aracelia, however, makes a garden in a pot of rice.
Publication date: 04/17/03