by David Cecelski
The first time I went to La Cuata, a homey little Mexican cafe in Dudley, in WayneCounty, was a quiet Monday evening. I was on my way back from a cousin’s funeral and it was dark and cold and I was looking for comfort food again. I didn’t have the patience for rush hour traffic, so I had left the highway and cut south along US 55 through Seven Springs and Mt. Olive, then turned north on US 117-A. I found La Cuata on a rural stretch of that road, in a neighborhood where there are a lot of mostly Latino mobile home parks and migrant farm labor camps.
That night I was the only diner at La Cuata, and the proprietors, a mother and son, only had one dish simmering on the stove, pollo en naranja, chicken in orange sauce. It wasn’t on the menu, but the son assured me that I would like it. It’s a dish, I later learned, that has its roots in Mexico’s colonial period and seems to have come originally from Valencia, a part of Spain famous for its orange groves and rice fields—it’s the home of paella, too.
Ten minutes later, the son brought me a platter of the chicken and rice on a bed of the orange sauce. Alongside, he placed a basket of homemade corn tortillas and a little plate of Serrano chiles. The dish was beautiful to behold: the sauce was the color of the early morning sun.
Marinated in spices, then slow cooked with that sauce made out of freshly-squeezed orange juice and a little lime juice, the chicken was tender and delicious. I flavored the sauce further with juice squeezed from the peppers, as the son taught me to do. I filled my tortillas with chicken and rice, dipped them into the orange sauce, and ate heartily. The dish was sublime—it radiated warmth and goodness.
While I ate, we talked and I learned that the family came here from Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The son had first visited Dudley to make a little extra money for school by working in the fields, then he and his family settled there. He very proudly told me that the food that his mother had prepared for me was the kind that is usually only found in homes back inGuadalajara—Jalisco home cooking.
Tonight I visited La Cuata again. Being a Sunday, the place was a lot busier and had many more Jalisco specialties on the menu. The little café—it has six tables—serves tacos, tortas, sopes and other standard fare, but its glory is its stews, casseroles and soups. I can remember a pozole roja, a homemade chicken mole, and pollo encebollado con rajas, chicken smothered in onions with chiles. The specials board—don’t even look at the printed menu at La Cuata—also featured a very traditional egg dish, huevos tapatíos,eggs and chorizo smothered with a spicy tomatillo and chile sauce.
People in Jalisco, and especially Guadalajara, by the way, call themselves Tapatíos. The term is apparently derived from a Nahuatl word for a pre-Columbian money unit that somehow became associated with the land where Guadalajara was built.
Tonight I tried the birria de borrego. It’s another classic Jalisco dish—a plate of roast lamb prepared in a rich, dark broth of tomato, dried roasted chiles and aromatic spices that have been simmered together. The stew is served with fresh lime juice, cilantro, radish, and corn tortillas. Jalisco claims to be the stew’s birthplace and Guadalajara is renowned for its birrierías, little cafes and stands that specialize in the dish.
Earthy and savory, La Cuata’s birria was magnificent. The mother and son both nodded when I expressed my appreciation, as if saying, yes, now we share an important secret: birria is one of life’s good things. But the son also said that he liked his mother’sbirria de chivo, the same stew made with goat instead of lamb, even better. He said that they’d have it for my next visit.
La Cuata is located in Dudley, just past the old grain elevators on US 117-A-South. Though not much more than a crossroads, Dudley is also home to Grady’s Barbecue, one of the state’s finest barbecue joints—whole hog, pit-cooked ‘cue. Grady’s is located at 3096 Arrington Bridge Road, 5 miles east of La Cuata.