CORNWALL, Ontario – When Ivan Contreras was 10-years-old, he learned how to cook in his hometown of Tampico, Mexico — specifically to help his hard-working mother.
“My mother taught me to cook when I was really young. She actually (still) lives in Mexico,” said Contreras. “Back then when I was a kid…she would be very busy working at home of course. She used to have a little shop at home, and she would say, ‘Ivan prepare something for me I’m hungry.’ That was the beginning of my cooking career.”
After moving to Cornwall, Contreras and his wife, both of Mexico, saw an opportunity to share their authentic recipes with the community. They opened Tampico’s authentic Mexican restaurant on Aug. 3, 2013 after designing the menu, name and logos in-house. Members of the public flocked to their restaurant location on Pitt St. to get their favourite local tacos and nachos, raving about the authentic flavours, until early 2019. Contreras officially announced the restaurant’s closure on June 19, 2019.
“We don’t really have authentic Mexican food in town and we saw an opportunity…we thought it would be a good idea to start this business,” he said. “We became very popular around Cornwall and we are very very grateful for Cornwall for giving us a lot of support over all these years, and very lucky to be in this community.”
Contreras always aimed to offer high quality, fresh and affordable dishes. He believes that our area does not have as many homemade, mom and pop style restaurants as it has in the past, but thinks that is something which should be greater enforced in our region.
“I think people really liked that everything was homemade and made from scratch in the store. We did not use any preservatives, that most of the time, are bad for people’s health. I think that’s the main reason we became really popular…and definitely, I think people liked the food because the flavour too,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges the restaurant faced was attaining ingredients required to make the Mexican dishes. Contreras said he would try to purchase his ingredients locally but had to order certain peppers and items from Mexico and the U.S. frequently, which was a task met with many hurdles.
“One of the things my wife and I did here in Cornwall was adapt Mexican food to Canadian textbooks,” said Contreras with a laugh. “We know its a different market, we know its a slightly different flavour that Canadian society likes…so we took Mexican food and added a little touch of Canadian flavour in it. For example…the Mexican taco in Mexico doesn’t come with lettuce, it’s cilantro and onion,” said Contreras.
Contreras said that Canadians like their cheese and bacon, so was sure to incorporate those items whenever possible, leaving only one dish the exact same as it would be served in his hometown.
Although Tampico’s has closed as a restaurant, Contreras is excited to start a new journey in which he serves his foods through his own catering business, as well as produces homemade taco shells to be sold in local stores.
“Of course we are new in this kind of business but we are going to try our best to satisfy the necessity of Mexican food in town. We didn’t just want to get rid of Tampico’s…it is already a staple in Cornwall…but now in a different way, a catering way,” said Contreras, who encourages interested parties to contact him through the Tampico’s Facebook page.
“I would like to say thanks again to Cornwall. I am very glad that this community received my food and I have no words to explain how grateful I am,” he said.
Contreras shared a special, exclusive salsa recipe with Taste the Seaway so locals can try and keep a part of the beloved restaurant in their home.
Salsa casera para tacos (homemade taco salsa recipe)
4 roma tomatoes
1 jalapeño pepper
1/4 white onion
2 garlic cloves
Black ground pepper
- Put 4 spoons of vegetable oil on a pan
- Fry tomatoes, jalapeño, garlic, onion thoroughly (they may seem burnt, that’s okay)
- Put all the fried veggies in the blender, add 1 tsp. of oregano and one of black pepper
- Add 100 mL of olive oil, a bit of water ( just to help the blending) and salt, as you wish