featured-food-and-wineIssue 10

At La Mo Café, Food is Family

At La Mo Café in Turlock, food is a family affair – often quite literally. The three co-owners, Gloria Smallwood, Brityn Butrick and Hillary Smith are a mother-daughter team who began the venture two and a half years ago as a side project. At the time, Smallwood and Butrick were looking for a change of pace from their work running La Morenita restaurants in Ceres and Modesto, respectively, and Smith was ready to take on something different than her job as a registered nurse.

Gloria’s mother, Lupe Cordoba, opened the first La Morenita in Turlock forty years ago. “Our grandmother still works,” says Smith. “She doesn’t run the restaurant anymore, but she goes every day to La Morenita in Ceres and tastes all the sauces to make sure they’re right. She was actually a groundbreaker in what we know now as the Mexican food in the Valley. So I guess it does run in our blood!”

On the Thursday afternoon that I arrive, the lunch crowd at La Mo is just starting to thin, but it’s clear that even at 2:30 on a weekday, this is a spot where people want to linger. It’s difficult to blame them – tucked back in a shopping grotto off Main Street, the restaurant’s airy outdoor seating is full of dutifully cultivated succulent plants, tinkling fountains and sculptural metal flowers. It’s an oasis in the middle of downtown where you can drink gourmet coffee from hand-thrown pottery mugs in peaceful seclusion.

Combine these elements with La Mo’s mouthwatering tamales, and it’s easy to see why the location has become one of the premiere food destinations in Stanislaus County. Butrick, Smith and Smallwood serve Mexican cuisine with a healthy twist, emphasizing fresh, local ingredients and smaller portion sizes. “I’m a nurse, so I’m huge into holistic health,” Smith says. “I feel like a lot can be prevented by diet and lifestyle. That’s what we want to show here – you can have delicious food that’s also healthy.”

Butrick, the brains behind many of the restaurant’s most delicious recipes, believes there’s no need to sacrifice taste in the name of healthier eating. Instead of serving refried beans on the side of her main dishes, she offers seasoned black beans. Instead of the traditional taco salad inside a fried tortilla shell, she offers bright, fresh salads that change with the seasons, including one dreamed up by her mother Gloria that’s made with Napa cabbage, jicama, red onions, pepitas and orange slices.

The main dishes are just as tempting. When asked about her personal favorite menu item, Butrick has to pause to think for a moment, but she eventually settles on the short ribs, a falling-off-the-bone beef confection which happens to be on the menu for that night. “We have four or five different versions of the short ribs. Tonight, we have them braised with ancho cilantro red wine sauce on top of a sweet corn puree base. We have a chipotle glazed recipe, we have mole ones – we’re doing one with Venezuelan chocolate next weekend.”

In the midst of all this upscale food, La Mo somehow remains laid-back and unpretentious. The décor and dishes are chic, all of-a-piece stylistically, but artfully mismatched. The result is an atmosphere that’s completely relaxed. “We want people to feel comfortable here. We want La Mo to be an extension of their house, not just a restaurant,” Smith says.

The restaurant’s fiercely loyal following indicates that this approach is working. During growing season, local farmers and gardeners drop off fresh produce almost daily and are thanked with a gift certificate or meal in return. Customers share recipes that sometimes make it on the menu. Even the coffee mugs are crowd-sourced. “We started out with mismatched pottery, and then customers started to bring us all the cute little mugs they’d find in Mexico or at Anthropologie,” says Smith.

“We love it,” Butrick says, smiling at her sister. “It makes the restaurant feel more homey.”

 

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