Anyone who has tried to throw random ingredients together with high hopes for a fabulous meal knows the results don't always match the well-intended efforts. (I once tried to make tofu spaghetti. Result? Mushy mess.) But Imelda, the pretty, petite dark-haired owner of Imelda's Mexican Food in Caldwell, is a master of her culinary craft. The homemade food is well worth the drive out to Pablo's Plaza.
The restaurant has been around for 16 years, and the first time I laid eyes on the place, I noticed the sign with "Imelda's" written in cursive above a graphic of a couple of tacos nestled together.
The inside of the restaurant looks as if it might resemble Imelda's own abode with multiple generations of family photos, newspaper clippings and colorful decor. Ceramic roosters and vegetable gourds line the baker's racks and walls. Striped ponchos and ornate sombreros hang in the corners, and knick-knacks intermingle with real and plastic plants—all set against orange, bright turquoise, lime and red walls. After sampling the food during an afternoon excursion to Canyon County with some Boise Weekly co-workers, I wanted to go back for more.
So, I invited a couple of couples to Imelda's with dinner in mind, only to find the doors locked. We missed serving time by two full hours. If you want to enjoy dinner, head out on a Saturday night. Imelda serves her homemade food between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays with 10 different breakfast plates available.
My second visit was for a weekday lunch—with only one dining companion—and it was a success. Imelda herself works in the kitchen, where all the handmade tortilla-making happens, so I was honored when she brought me a warm sample of a corn tortilla to help me decide what to order.
The menu is full of authentic Mexican food options like enchiladas, tamales or tostados, and the taco salad is packed with all the usual ingredients plus ranch dressing. But my culinary aspirations kicked in, and I could not resist the chance to create my own taco. Imelda's tortillas are a solid foundation for a fulfilling meal; I just had to decide what to pile on top of them. Meat choices include ground beef, cubed pork, chicken, chorizo, shredded beef, bacon and sausage accompanied by rice, beans, onions, cilantro, lettuce, cheese, tomato, sour cream or olives. Savvy taco creators can request potato, jalapeno and avocado.
My lunch companion and I decided to share a couple of plates. The chicken guisado—cubed chicken with green chilies and spices ($6.49) is made up of two tortillas with a circumference somewhere between typical taco and big-ass burrito. I chose a flour tortilla and ordered it with seasoned chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomato and a side of rice seasoned with Mexican spices accompanied by a pool of refried pinto beans. With every bite, my front teeth sunk through the thick flour tortilla, and I spent more time chewing—instead of inhaling—because I didn't want it to end. The spices in the meat are Imelda's secret, but the flavors were simple, yet pleasing without being overpowering.
We also split a quesadilla plate ($6.49 plain, $7.49 with meat): two deep-fried flour tortillas busting at the seams with mozzarella cheese. A spin on empanadas, the blend of melted cheese and soft tortilla in golden brown pockets were a departure from the normal quesadilla formula. The crisp lettuce and chunks of tomato and avocado, along with a sprinkling of cheese and a dollop of sour cream, rounded out representatives from all the food groups and made it seem almost nutritious. My lunch companion and I had an enjoyable time talking over our tacos in the comfortable dining area, and, as it turns out, with Imelda's make-your-own-taco option, I am a good cook.
—Elaine Lacaillade is working on some cooking secrets of her own, sans tofu.
Having spent part of my youth in San Jose, Calif., I'm embarrassed to admit that it was years before I discovered that an authentic taco was not the result of adding a package of seasoning to a pound of cooked ground chuck, then ladling the resulting mixture into a crispy pre-formed shell and topping the whole mess with iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes, and grated cheddar. But, to paraphrase the Good Book, when I was a child, I thought as a child and spoke as a child ... and ate as a child. Eating at Imelda's reminded me that it is good to put away childish things. Which also includes ravioli out of a can.
If you're the kind of person who gets sweaty palms when confronting an array of choices, Imelda's menu may be a bit of a challenge—especially if you're used to grabbing a bag of tacos from a take-out window. In fact, if it weren't for the possibility that they might be sued for trademark infringement, the tagline for Imelda's could easily be "have it your way."
Here's how it works: You start with the choice of homemade flour or corn tortilla; select from eight different meats including chile Colorado, beef guisado, and barbacoa; then choose from a variety of toppings that include rice, onions, lettuce, beans, cilantro, and even potato (this is Idaho, after all). I went for a barbacoa taco (described as "beef from the cheek area"), and exercising restraint and the "less is more" philosophy, I limited my toppings to onions, lettuce and cheese on a corn tortilla. Single tacos are $2.25, but if you're a bargain shopper, you can get three of the same kind for $5.99.
I might have stuck with just a few tacos and been satisfied, but the tamale plate ($6.49 with lettuce, cheese, tomato and a side of rice and beans) caught my eye, and I ordered it as well. Almost as quickly as you can say "bienvenidos," my order arrived. Like any good, authentic taco, Imelda's version let the meat do the talking—and mine crooned. When the music abruptly ended in a few bites, I found myself wishing I'd taken advantage of "Taco Tuesday" (any three tacos for $5.29), so I turned to my tamale platter for solace.
A few years ago, my wife and I enjoyed the adventure of making tamales with a Mexican family. I quickly learned from that experience that tamales are one of those foods whose seeming simplicity belies the complexity of its preparation. What immediately impressed me about Imelda's tamale was that the masa casing (a corn dough made from hominy) was thick and chewy —in contrast to some tamales where the masa has a consistency closer to Cream of Wheat. The meat filling was savory, and more than a match for its doughy wrapping. Like my taco, the flavors were fresh and bold, with the spiciness of the meat filling accenting the more stolid corn base of the masa.
Randomly mixing my forkfuls of tamale with the beans, lettuce and rice, I could have been enjoying the working hombre's lunch in a small border cantina—rather than sitting just a block from the College of Idaho—and Imelda's interior easily lends itself to that fantasy. Walls alternate in color between orange, green, blue and red. And while the sombreros, serapes, and modest amounts of Mexican kitsch leave no doubt as to the restaurant's ethnicity, the greater profusion of family photos reminds you just why Imelda's menu proudly proclaims "homemade" below its name.
Now that I have put aside the childish tacos of my youth, I think I may be ready to go back to Imelda's and order me a big ol' bowl of menudo. Maybe.
—Michael Boss may have to end his longstanding relationship with Chef Boyardee.