November 27, 2018
Barbosa’s Mexican Restaurants
DEFINITION: Pleasing or stimulating to the appetite; delicious; tasty
It’s the chips.
Really, it’s the chips. And yet it’s so much more than chips. Like the castle. And the family. There’s a lot of history, hard work and tradition packed into the chips that are part of the Barbosa’s restaurant legacy in St. Joseph. But that’s just the start of this spicy story.
“It’s the chips that keep people coming back,” says Angie Ransom, owner, Barbosa’s Restaurant and Barbosa’s Castillo. “We spend hours upon hours each week making them by hand. Literally it’s a step-by-step process for up to six hours making the chips every day, just to keep up with the restaurant demand.”
Ransom smiles when she talks about the chip-making intensity that she and a crew of four or five employees dive into each day. “We have our own recipe, like a lot of the items on our menu. And I want the consistency there, batch after batch, so I’m in the kitchen making them every day right alongside my team. I will be standing at the fryer or the grill and I will be part of the process. All the time.”
Dedication to quality? Absolutely. In fact, this may be a key ingredient behind the longstanding success of the Barbosa’s restaurants. For decades, customers have visited the “East” location on Frederick Avenue and the “castle” location – officially Barbosa’s Castillo – downtown at 906 Sylvanie St. They’ve enjoyed millions of these handmade flour chips with salsa or beefy cheese dip. They’ve ordered countless plates of enchiladas, pork burritos, homemade chili and tamales. And each time, the flavor has been consistent to the way the Barbosa family created it.
Ransom says she’s been working in the Barbosa kitchens as long as she can remember. “I started when I was 21, waiting tables,” she says. “Now I’m 63. I know all about the menu, inside and out. And I know my loyal customers and I know many of the people who work alongside me. It’s like a family.”
When she ponders the restaurants’ success, Ransom cuts to the chase. “It’s really good food. And it is different. It’s very different than anything you’d get at any other restaurant in town. It’s actually different than what you might get in Mexico. It’s our own variety, and it’s my grandmother’s food. That’s why we’re still here,” she says.
The menu offers everything from tamales to enchiladas and tostadas, to burritos and specialties – but the chips remain a top seller above every item. Ransom can explain the roughly 14-step process that ends over a very hot fryer, but you get the idea. Eat these slowly. Appreciate this labor.
It’s extra enjoyable when you consider the “accidental” way they came to be. The chips are actually a serendipitous outcome of another kitchen product, the homemade tortillas. Ransom tells it like this: “My grandmother made tortillas by hand when the restaurant started. She made all the tortillas we served. They took a long time to make, with lots of steps. During one of the steps, they were cut to a specific size, and someone said ‘let’s not throw the scraps away,’ and they put some in a fryer. They became our chips. They’re the same today.”
Another classic and unique Barbosa family recipe is the fideo. This authentic Mexican pasta dish is still homemade, the same way Ransom’s grandmother made it. It’s the same with the enchiladas. They’re made in big batches and consistency matters. A few thousand (yes, thousand) enchiladas are made each week to serve at both locations. Cheese enchiladas are the top seller, but several hundred beef and chicken are sold each week, too.
Many locals would say Barbosa’s restaurants are partly famous for the food, and the other part for the atmosphere. The original Barbosa’s restaurant was started by Mr. and Mrs. E.C. Pelen Barbosa in 1960. Pelen then opened the Sylvanie location at the stunning European-inspired Moss house in 1974. Dating to the late 1800s, the Josiah Moss home is one of the most outstanding Queen Anne style homes across the city’s extensive architectural collection. The brick and stone structure has one of the first rooftop gardens of the time period. From the home’s top level, the sweeping blufftop view includes the river, the downtown commerce area, the spires of several historic churches and fellow Gilded Age mansions.
Side note: While people definitely come for the food, they also come to “the castle” to enjoy an architectural gem. The Moss home was designed by nationally-known architect and artist Harvey Ellis. Ellis had joined the famed architectural firm of Eckel and Mann by 1889, and was well known across the U.S. for his extravagant talent. There’s intricate flooring, paneling, staircase features, ornate glass and surprises at every turn at Barbosa’s Castillo. Mr. Moss had traveled extensively, and he wanted a home that reflected those adventures.
Today, there are more than 200 members of the Barbosa family living in St. Joseph. Ransom, who is Pelen Barbosa’s niece, says that when they get together at a local hall for a holiday or an event, “everybody comes when grandma is going to make tostadas. And I mean everybody.”
Across that group of “everybody” is a quite a community stamp. Many have served in the military. Merced Barbosa was the first minority firefighter in the city. Two other relatives, Jason and Jesse, were part of a touring musical group called the Barbosa Brothers. Many Barbosa families have been (and still are) active in their churches and neighborhoods, including leadership and service at the annual St. Patrick’s Mexican Fiesta.
It was Pelen, says Ransom, who really created the atmosphere of community and family that lives on today. “Everyone knew him. He made everyone feel like family. He was the one,” she says.
Today, many employees are connected to the Barbosa family and a handful have stayed on the team for several years. “It’s really important that it feels like friends and family, and our customers know that, too,” says Ransom. “But it’s also a lot of work. But we enjoy the work. It’s so important that we keep the feeling and the food the same, because that’s what our customers expect.”
There’s just something uncommon and purely St. Joseph about this recipe for success.
And the chips. There’s the chips…
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