Flint-based and family-owned La Familia Morales Restaurant is a part of a $3.9 billion economic engine

Flint-based and family-owned La Familia Morales Restaurant is a part of a $3.9 billion economic engine
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Longevity is hard enough to come by in the restaurant business.

Tastes change, and what was considered trendy in dining one year is cliché the next. Not to mention the stresses that go along with finding the right staff, weathering an economic recovery and, if you’re lucky enough to last longer than a few years, getting the next generation to buy in.

The family behind La Familia Morales knows all these growing pains, but has been able to carve out a niche as “Flint’s Most Wanted Taco” purveyor, spanning generations.

The restaurant is a stand-out among the city’s 5,300 minority-owned businesses and, arguably, the grandfather of Flint’s burgeoning food culture.

And they’ve done so while managing to adapt to diners’ demands for healthier fare. While it’s the restaurant’s unique blend of spices that flavor its beef taco meat, it’s the spot’s turkey alternative that really makes the menu stand out.

Freshly prepared spices, crisp vegetables and savory sauces go into dishes Rose Morales-Maldonado (above), manager of La Familia Morales, says keep the restaurant’s customers satisfied. Turkey tacos are a specialty. Photo by Alvin Brown

Though very few significant changes have been added to the menu, manager and third-generation Morales member, Rose Morales-Maldonado, says the turkey came naturally as she and others who prefer to watch what they eat prefer a leaner protein.

So while the ground beef tacos, enchiladas, tostadas and other entrees remain favorites, so too is the turkey meat, as well as a seasoned, shredded chicken.

“It’s the dedication of our customers, they’re the ones who keep us afloat,” says Morales-Maldonado, who manages the restaurant for her mother, owner Juanita Morales.“The people who have been loyal employees for many, many years are the ones who remember the orders of a lot of our customers. A lot of our regulars might not even remember what they usually like to order, but their waitress who’s known them a long time will know.”

It’s that sense of familia – and that unique blend of spices – that has helped to win over fans.

The restaurant is a stand-out among the city’s 5,300 minority-owned businesses and, arguably, the grandfather of Flint’s burgeoning food culture.

La Familia Morales got its start in Flint nearly 50 years ago, long before there even was a Morales.

It started out in 1968 when Morales-Maldonado’s grandparents relocated to Flint from Texas so her grandfather Esteban Sauceda could work in the shop for the automakers. Her grandmother Rita Patlan opened La Azteca Taco House on what was then Detroit Street (now King).

Michigan is home to nearly 11,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, which report $3.9 billion in annual revenue and employ nearly 19,000 residents.

“It was my grandmother’s idea so she would have something of her own,” Morales-Maldonado says.

The recipes were what one would consider typical Tex-Mex cuisine. Hard, fried corn shells for the tacos, lots of lettuce, shredded cheese and tomato piled on gooey enchiladas, crunchy tortilla chips with taco salads and a seasoned ground beef (unlike many of the newer taquerias that emphasize grilled and marinated chunks
of meat).

When Patlan died, her husband and his second wife took over the family business, but it was Morales-Maldonado’s father Sergio Morales who perfected the recipes that would go on to put La Azteca on the map.

“A lot of places use the seasoning packets for their taco meat, but not us,” says Morales-Maldonado.

No, at La Azteca, Morales used his own blend of spices to go with a lean blend of ground beef. Tortillas were sourced from La Michoacana Tortilla Bakery in Detroit’s Mexicantown and for many years were hand-folded
and fried in lard.

A second La Azteca location followed in 1979 on Court Street, which was eventually sold to another family.

Meanwhile, Morales-Maldonado and her siblings pretty much grew up in and around La Azteca, though she says she resisted joining the family business for a long time, instead opting for several years to work in the medical field.

“There was a lot of eating out, our parents spent all their time there,” says Maldonado.“We had babysitters all the time because we couldn’t always be there. But even though my parents were always busy, they would come home at like 5 or 6, and made sure we got to school on time.”

Generations of success are the hallmark of La Familia Morales Restaurant headed by Owner Juanita Morales and her daughter Rose Morales-Maldonado. Photo Alvin Brown

Morales-Maldonado eventually gave in and joined in on the family business in 1998 when her mother Juanita Morales opened her own restaurant in its current location on Garland and named it in honor of the family. Suddenly, Morales-Maldonado, whose parents were getting older started to take on more responsibility at
the restaurant.

While La Azteca remains under different ownership, the Moraleses took their family recipes with them, along with their loyal followers.

Much of the menu has remained the same over the years, except now the family has to account for the droves of regulars who stop in daily. So, the family – the kitchen is now headed by Morales-Maldonado’s husband Phillip – takes care to continue making things in-house, but with efficiency in mind. Taco shells, for example, are no longer shaped by hand. Instead, Phillip Maldonado uses a special device that allows him to bend and deep fry 16 corn tortillas at a time. Each day, he arrives early in the morning and makes a few hundred shells.

He also uses the same seasoning that his wife’s father perfected, though the meat is prepared in 20-pound increments to improve efficiency.

Turkey tacos are among the stand-outs at La Familia Morales restaurant, which offers tacos for 50 – 65 cents during Cinco de Mayo. Photo by Alvin Brown

The attention to the details makes the fare stand out to regulars, who every Cinco de Mayo line up around the building to load up on the famous tacos, which go for 50-65 cents in appreciation of their loyalty.

For the die-hards, T-shirts are available that say “Flint’s Most Wanted Taco.”

It’s that dedication to a local legacy and a willingness to make subtle changes to go with the times that keeps Morales-Maldonado in the family business.

 

 

 

HISPANIC-OWNED BUSINESSES

According to the State of Michigan’s Office for New Americans, Michigan is home to nearly 11,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, which report $3.9 billion in annual revenue and employ nearly 19,000 residents.

Editor’s Note: Serena Maria Daniels is a freelance journalist and a contributor for TheHubFlint. Her reporting on the Flint water crisis appeared in Reuters, an international multimedia news organization. She is also an Equitable Cities reporting fellow for Nextcity.org, a nonprofit news organization and a regular contributor to NPR’s Latino USA. Serena’s background also includes food writing, with work appearing in the Detroit Metro Times, Hour Detroit, Lucky Peach, Extra Crispy and NPR’s The Salt. You may find more of her work at serenamaria.com.

Lead photo: Phillip Maldonado heads the kitchen, which prepares hundreds of popular dishes daily. Photo by Alvin Brown

 

 

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