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The vegetable fijata is among the buffet favorites at La Reyna on Monday and Wednesdays.

Carmen Legaspi did not set out to win the hearts and taste buds of four eastern Iowa communities with her authentic Mexican cuisine.

She would have been happy cooking for her family – husband Carlos and their children – and their friends. She would have been content selling her beloved salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo and other items at that store in Columbus Junction or at Farmers Markets.

Then one day, she received a request that changed everything.

Before I tell you about that day, however, I first have to tell you where I heard Carmen’s story.

I was walking from the Palace Theatre, where I had gone to take photos of the preparations for this week’s re-opening, to the Benton County Courthouse. There I would sit through part of a trial as part of my upcoming series on jury duty.

Carmen turned left at the corner of First Avenue and Fourth Street, and stopped.

“Dean,” she said, “come to La Reyna. I have something to show you.”

I arrived just before 11 a.m., just before the restaurant and its Monday buffet opened.

Regular customers already know about the buffet – Mondays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Me, I was not a regular customer. But after my experience that day, it is very likely I will become a much more frequent visitor.

The first two guys in at the buffet line at La Reyna Monday morning had just one thing in common when it comes to Mexican restaurant customs – each was eating at the downtown Vinton establishment for just the second time.

One guy recently moved the Vinton area from Cedar Rapids, and has been eating at Mexican restaurants there for years. The other guy (me) has never been a big lover of Mexican food.

One guy wanted his Mexican food extra spicy, and asked for hot peppers. Me, I was looking for something mild (and without beans).

After nearly 20 years of cooking for Iowans, Carmen and her staff at La Reyna have figured out how to appeal to both ends of that Mexican cuisine spectrum.

Over a plate that included chicken fajitas, veggie Fajita, the La Reyna burrito (which comes in chicken or beef) , beef chimichangas and more, I asked Carmen about the La Reyna history.

In my faltering elementary Spanish, I asked if what I had heard from another customer was true. She asked me to try again. I paused for a moment, thought of a few more words in her native language and repeated the question.

This time she understood.

“I was happy cooking for my friends and family,” she said.

Then one day a customer at the store in Columbus Junction came and said, “I love this, but don’t have time to cook.”

No problem, said Carmen.

Soon that customer found himself answering questions about where he got his lunch and who cooked it. And a restaurant was born.

And then another. And another. And now, a fourth is about to open.

The friends and Facebook fans of La Reyna know the story: First Carlos and Carmen opened La Reyna in Columbus Junction. They had not yet thought of a name for the business and were caught off guard when their attorney asked what to call it. La Reyna was the first thing that came to mind.

Because Columbus Junction has a large Latino population, it also had a large number of Mexican restaurants. The Legaspis decided to move to Iowa City, and the La Reyna restaurant there was equally popular.

Former Columbus Junction resident Heather Kingsbury (wife of VHSH principal Matt) suggested that La Reyna could be the Mexican place that Rich Hainstock had spent years trying to bring to Vinton.

It was. La Reyna opened here in April. Carmen and Carlos decided to close the Iowa City when they moved to Vinton.

Now, the Legaspis are adding a fourth city: Cedar Rapids. When the Newbo Market opens in downtown Cedar Rapids later this month, the La Reyna Taqueria & Bodega will be one of the stores.

Carmen and I discussed all of these communities, and the constant changes in the Legaspi family – they moved to Vinton a few weeks ago, when school started; their youngest daughter is in the eighth grade.
She also discussed culture. All of the couple’s children are bilingual; one son works at Rockwell where speaking both English and Spanish gives him more career opportunities. While she speaks fluent English, Carmen is trying to teach her friends and staff her native language as well. In Vinton, unlike the previous cities that were home to La Reyna (the queen), Carmen has virtually nobody other than her family and staff who understands Spanish. She’d like to change that.

“Solo necesitas practicar,” she says, using words that most English speakers would understand: You only need to practice.

The conversation returns to the food. I tell Carmen I have never been a lover of Mexican food – especially beans. And while there are items on the buffet table that include them, many of them have little or no beans.

Carmen explains that her food is authentically Mexican – like she cooked before moving to the U.S.But she also says she has adapted some of her recipes to adjust to American preferences.

She briefly interrupts our conversation to ask the second customer how he likes what he has eaten so far.

“It’s great,” he replies, “but do you have anything hotter?”

“I know just what you need,” says Carmen, as she heads toward the kitchen.

She’s been doing that for years – showing Americans how to enjoy Mexican food, and letting them know that there are options.

That’s the main reason for the buffet – to give customers a chance to try a variety of items.

The other man – the guy with lots of experience at other Mexican restaurants – now calls La Reyna his second favorite Mexican restaurant in eastern Iowa. It’s a bit more expensive than some others, he said. (The lunch buffet, including soft drinks and free refills, is $8.99, a few quarters more than the American buffet across the street at The Pizza Ranch)

But after one bite of the chicken Fajita, this newbie to Mexican cuisine took a large step toward becoming one of the La Reyna regulars.

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Comments (1)

LaReyna is one of the best mexican restaurants I have eaten at!!!
By: Jacob Lamers on October 2nd 8:52pm

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