(blog) West Texas: Ben's Little Mexico

Today I ventured to Ben’s Little Mexico “Legendary Mexican Cuisine”, a family-run restaurant that first opened its doors in 1947.  I could tell the complimentary red salsa served with tortilla chips was made with fresh peppers, and its soupy character was matched with a nice bold, zesty taste.   I ordered three beef enchiladas with “ccq sauce”. Because it was not immediately apparent what this was, I had to ask.  My waitress responded that it was a queso sauce, so I decided to go with it.  The ccq sauce was certainly cheesy, and I also doused my plate with the fresh red salsa, which made the overall enchilada experience quite enjoyable.  An incredibly attentive wait staff checked on me every 2 minutes, bustling about with customer service-related queries, constantly refilling my coffee and water, asking me how the food tasted.

After my meal I had a chance to chat with Lenora Mancha, the widow of the late Ben Mancha and current owner of the restaurant. A very nice and welcoming woman, Lenora was happy to answer some of my initial questions about her family and the restaurant’s history.  Her mother was from Guanajuato, Mexico, and she grew up surrounded by her family’s home cooking.  All of her mother’s friends would ask her to cook for them.  Her husband Ben was a community leader in Odessa and along with his former business partner Ernest Martinez,  was instrumental in pushing for Spanish TV programming and the hiring of minorities in the media and oil industries (Odessa American 2010).

These Lenora wakes up at 4am every morning to start cooking for the day.  She told me all the peppers, which they source from New Mexico, vegetables, and other ingredients she uses to cook are brought in fresh each day.  Ben’s consistently runs out of food by 2:30 or 3pm each day, but Lenora likes it this way.  “If you try to cook too much, you lose a sense of the spices and it makes it too hard to get the right flavor”, she told me.  Therefore she only cooks enough food to last that day, and then starts all over the following morning.  By the end of the week the entire crew is exhausted. 

Lenora also raised an issue that is oft-repeated in the Midland / Odessa area food service industry. Given the current boom in the oil industry, it’s hard to keep a restaurant staffed.  The lure of the nearby oil fields is too strong for many young workers who might otherwise land a job in food service.  The rumors, mostly true it turns out, about the availability of work and levels of pay in the Permian Basin oil fields draw large numbers of workers out of the restaurant kitchen and into a commercial water truck, light rigging rental warehouse, or drill bit repair shop.  The restaurant business has a high rate of turnover and Ben’s is constantly looking for new staff.  With projections that the fracking boom will continue for a number of years, restaurants like Ben’s Little Mexico will continue to feel the labor squeeze.