STEUBENVILLE - In retrospect, Shawna Ovalle figures she might have gone overboard passing out flyers announcing the opening of La Grande Taqueria, a new Mexican restaurant in downtown Steubenville.
When they opened their doors June 1, "we had an outrageous response that first day," she said. "I passed out too many," she said with a wry laugh. "I didn't realize they'd all come. I thought it would be like when you hand out birthday party invitations ... I wasn't prepared for (the turnout). We had people waiting for tables, and we were 10 deep in to-go orders. I wasn't expecting that big a response, and service wasn't where I wanted it to be."
That's the bad news.
AUTHENTIC MEXICAN — Shawna Ovalle and her husband, Daniel, are cooking up plenty of authentic Mexican meals at their new restaurant, La Grande Taqueria, at 104 N. Fourth St., Steubenville. Mrs. Ovalle said having their own restaurant has been a lifelong dream. Open Monday through Saturday, La Grande Taqueria offers breakfast, lunch and dinner items. -- Linda Harris
The good news, she said, is that "we were able to see what we need to do to make everything run better and faster."
"We were able to see what needed to be fixed," she said. "Yesterday I had tables of seven and 10, and they were pleased with how quickly they got their food. We have food out within 10 or 15 minutes for most orders. That's important, because a lot of people come in on their lunch break."
Ovalle and her Guatemala-born husband, Daniel, had always talked about getting into the food business.
"It was kind of a pipe dream," she said. "But things just fell into place."
The biggest "thing" was that Daniel, her husband of 18 years, lost his job in the cable industry and couldn't find work in his field. That left the Ovalles with the time and opportunity to follow their dream.
She said a Mexican restaurant was the logical choice, since it's the same foods her husband grew up with in Guatamala.
"We decided it was the time to try a new venture," she said. "We'd always wanted to do it, it was something we talked about, but you just don't leave a good job with good benefits."
Daniel, second youngest of 11 children, came to the U.S. to live with an older brother who'd already emigrated with his family. They met in Missouri, and ended up in Steubenville at the urging of another brother whose former wife was from here. One of Daniel's nephews, Kevin Benito of Manheim, Pa., is a partner in the business.
She said when she met Daniel, she couldn't cook a lick.
"I burned beans," she said, laughing. "But once I got the foundation from my husband and his family, I can cook anything."
These days they're both comfortable in the kitchen - at home and at work.
"We've always had a passion for cooking and people love to eat our food," she said. "For instance, the salsa is my recipe," she said. "And I do the marinade for the chicken. But we both cook, so if he were sick I could do it."
Ovalle said La Grande Taqueria is authentic Mexican, not the "Tex-Mex" style favored by other restaurants and chains.
"Ours is more authentic," she said. "We don't use the crispy shell tortillas, we use soft shell. Nothing is prepackaged or frozen - with a lot of the chains, everything is pre-made. We serve our salsa warm, I think it unlocks the flavor - most places you get it cold. I get an outrageous number of comments on how good our beans are - we make them fresh every day with seasonings, we don't just dump them out of the can and add water.
"It's really all in how you prepare the food: Anybody can open a can and warm up food, but it needs to be seasoned correctly, it has to have flavor."
Ovalle said their portions are big and the prices low. "I think the most expensive item on our menu right now is $7. And everything's homemade, it's made fresh every day."
La Grande Taqueria, Spanish for "The Big Taco," is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and closed Sundays. They offer breakfast, lunch and dinner options, with favorites like tacos, burritos, and chimichangas.
They also serve up hand-rolled flautas, similar to taquitos, except they're made with flour tortillas wrapped around beef, chicken or pork and then deep fried.
"They come out light and fluffy, they kind of melt in your mouth," she said. "Once people try our food and see our prices, I think they'll realize we're not like any of the others. I don't feel like we're in competition with anyone else because our foods are so different."
They're located at 104 N. Fourth St., where the Green Mill used to be.
"A lot of buildings downtown the leases are low, it's affordable to start a business down here without worrying about a big mortgage or lease payment," she said. "That's one of the opportunities the downtown brings, it's a low start-up for new companies."
To-go service is available. To see the menu, go to www.Lagrandetaqueria.com, or call them at (740) 282-8226.