When Ana Iris Rodas was a child in El Salvador, she loved helping her grandmother in the kitchen.
Ana Iris, known as “Anita” in her family, said her grandmother was well-known in their small town, Tacuba, for tamales, sausages and pastries she sold from a shop in her house.
“She was always busy,” Anita remembered, “and I wanted to be next to her.”
Anita took pride in the small tasks her grandmother assigned, which included tying tamales with string and adding sugar to bread dough. Over the years, she learned every recipe by heart.
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Last summer, she followed her grandmother’s entrepreneurial spirit and opened a business in Merriam. Anita’s Cuisine, 5816 Merriam Drive, serves Salvadoran and Mexican specialties.
Anita runs her cozy six-booth restaurant with her 27-year-old daughter, Steffanie, who takes orders, clears tables and helps in the kitchen. Anita’s husband, Hugo, and son, Brian, pitch in when they’re not busy with their other jobs.
Anita’s is open daily for breakfast and lunch from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but Steffanie says she and her mom hope to expand with dinner later on.
The hearty breakfast menu is served all day. It features huevos rancheros ($5.50), a tamale platter with two eggs ($6), and chilaquiles ($6), a traditional Mexican dish that consists of fried corn tortillas layered with salsa and served with refried beans, eggs and a choice of chorizo, ham, bacon or sausage.
Looking for a deal? Order the breakfast burrito ($3) and grab a cup of coffee, which is free to customers until 2 p.m.
Lunch options include Mexican fare — tacos, tortas, enchiladas — as well as Anita’s specialty, pupusas. The thick handmade corn tortillas cost $2.25 each. They’re stuffed with the customer’s choice of cheese, beans and/or shredded pork (I like all three) and served hot with a side of cool curtido, a slaw made of carrots, cabbage and onions.
Anita also serves homestyle dishes such as pollo empanizado ($7.99 with a drink), which pairs breaded, griddled chicken breast with refried beans and rice. Anita’s Platter ($6.99 with a drink) consists of beef simmered with potatoes and tomatoes. It’s also served with rice and beans.
The restaurant offers daily and monthly specials. I tried the sauteed shrimp plate, which is $8 during Lent, and plan to return for the platanos fritos breakfast platter ($6), fried plantains with rice, beans, two eggs and queso fresco. It would make a great pre-Ikea meal — the mega home store is less than half a mile away from Anita’s and you can see its blue and yellow exterior from the restaurant’s front windows.
Popular daily specials include $1 crispy beef tacos on Tuesdays, and $5 for two pupusas and a can of soda on Fridays.
Steffanie’s favorite menu item is panes rellenos ($6.50 with a drink, or $6 on Wednesdays). The Salvadoran chicken sandwich is seasoned with spices and a hint of chocolate and topped with coleslaw, cucumbers and radishes.
“We used to eat that for Thanksgiving,” Steffanie said. Now she can order one whenever she wants.
Steffanie left her job as a medical assistant to work at Anita’s Cuisine. She wanted to help her mom, who spent years working long days in food trucks and school cafeterias, “achieve her American dream,” she said.
Anita loves cooking for her devoted regular customers, who regularly call her “Mom.” Often, when she’s tying tamales or pouring sugar to make flan, she thinks of her grandmother, who passed down the importance of food and family.
“How you start in life is the most important thing,” Anita said.
“I started with joy.”
Location: 5816 Merriam Drive, Merriam
Hours: 6 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t miss: The Salvadoran pupusas ($2.25 each), thick corn tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese and pork. If you’re there for breakfast, try the tamales platter ($6) or the platanos fritos breakfast special ($6), a plate of two fried eggs, fried plantains, refried beans and queso fresco.
Vegetarian: Order the pupusas with beans and cheese only. They come with a side of curtido, a slaw made of carrots, cabbage and onions.
More info: On Facebook