Fostering community through food at Sabores de Mexico

Sabores De Mexico’s signature beef barbacoa is slow cooked for over six hours to ensure maximum flavor lock. // Photo by Mike Oh

By Mike Oh

Swimming in a sea of spices, shredded strands of chuck steak slow-cooked to perfection in a hot pot. The concoction is Sabores de Mexico’s house speciality, beef barbacoa. The dish takes over six hours to cook, and it is one that head chef and owner Enriqueta Magana has worked to perfect throughout her life.

Sabores de Mexico is a new Mexican restaurant located on 1200 Cornwall Ave. that prepares food made fresh daily with time-tested ingredients. They opened on May 21 and expect to receive their liquor license soon.

Classics line the menu, such as a trio of tacos with seasoned meats, garnished with fragrant cilantro, lime and green or red salsa. Magana said she has tried to keep many dishes under $10 to keep meals affordable for students.

“I want them to feel full and healthy,” Magana said.

Magana started cooking for herself when she was 10 years old while her father was out tending the family’s bean farm in Jalisco, Mexico.

“There must have been 1,000 people in the town,” Magana said. “Sometimes we didn’t have food, sometimes we had nothing.”

Owning a restaurant has been a lifelong dream for Magana, but her responsibilities as a mother have always come first, she said. Magana has two sons and a daughter. Her daughter graduated from Western in 2014 with a degree in business administration and now works for Hawaiian Airlines.

Her son Ivan Magana, 19, currently attends Whatcom Community College and is pursuing a degree in psychology. Ivan works at the restaurant helping out his mom hosting and waiting tables.

“It is inspiring to see her doing what she’s passionate about. Whether you come from poverty, anything is possible,” Ivan Magana said.  

Along with opening her restaurant, which she says has been 15 years in the making, Enriqueta Magana also spends her time working with other community members to organize the annual Latino Summit at Bellingham High School, which took place on May 19.

“I don’t have money to pay for their university, so I give my time back [to the community] because the government has helped assist in my children’s education,” Enriqueta Magana said.

It was this same generous and kind-hearted nature that sparked Javier Magana’s eye, who has been married to Enriqueta Magana for nearly 25 years.

“I knew I had to marry her when I saw her cooking and helping people out in Jalisco,” Javier Magana said.

The festival, which began in 2014 to raise scholarship funds, celebrates culture and the importance of education through student musical performances, Tae Kwon Do martial arts and traditional folk dance.

“When I first started five years ago, only five people showed up to the festival,” Enriqueta Magana said.

Isabel Meaker, executive director of family engagement at Bellingham Public Schools, organizes the Latino Summit’s coordination and has collaborated with Enriqueta Magana over the last five years.

This year’s festival shattered previous years’ attendance with over 970 people showing out for the event, Meaker said.

“There is a thriving Latino community,” Meaker said.

According to the 2018 United States Census, 9.4% of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic in Whatcom County.

“Many of the parents that I work with are such hard-working people, loving neighbors, and are sometimes seen as people that are looking for support,” Meaker said. “They are amazing people that come into this community with amazing stories and are survivors of many traumas.”

According to Meaker, graduation rates for Latinx students have gone up 20% since the festival started five years ago. Over $10,000 was raised in scholarship money this year for students from local families and small business donations.

“There is no way we can do this event without Enriqueta Magana,” Meaker said. “What people don’t realize is what she has done for us with the Latino Festival she has done with many other groups in the community. If we ask the people out there in the community, considering that this is a Latina woman and her age, that is not the first thing people will think of her.”

For Enriqueta Magana, it’s not only about the food, but the opportunities she is able to provide for her community.

“It’s hard for the Spanish community to find good jobs, so I interviewed many and offered them, and now they work here,” Enriqueta Magana said.

“Cooking for me is the best opportunity to help the most people,” Enriqueta Magana said. “I feel very happy because all the people say my food is the best! When people say that all my stress and tiredness goes away. This is my dream.”

Sabores de Mexico is now open with full bar service coming soon.  

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