A gentle chime sounds as customers step into Latino Legacy, an unassuming eatery that opens up to bright yellow and red walls, tissue paper flowers, and colorful Latino art. Corrido music softly plays in the background.
Owners Juan and Zonia Villanueva, who hail from El Salvador, are proud of the Central and South American cuisines their eatery offers. The family-run gem adeptly showcases Salvadorian specialties such as pupusas and plátanos fritos.
Zonia, a 52-year-old spry woman with a kick in her step and a no-nonsense attitude, is the mastermind behind the family operation.
“Cooking makes me happy,” she says. “I like it, and the customers do, too.”
Back to the Villanuevas’ pupusas—hand-patted saucers of fresh masa stuffed with beans, cheese, and pork. They are matched with obligatory curtido (a chile-lashed chopped cabbage salad singing with vinegar) and a pair of house hot sauces. These thick disks of hot gooey goodness have been Zonia’s bread and butter, so to speak.
As cheesy bean filling drips from pupusas onto customers’ chins, Zonia peeks from the back kitchen cracking a wry smile. These are the moments she lives for.
The restaurateur has a storied career in the service industry that began in Metapán, a small city just outside of Santa Ana, which is the third largest city in El Salvador. Work and opportunities were scarce. At a tender age, Zonia immigrated from then-war-torn El Salvador to New York’s Long Island in the mid- to late-1980s, leaving behind her country and culture.
“When I came it was quiet here [in the U.S.],” she recalls. “It was very quiet for me.”
So she and her husband, both immigrants in their 20s, busied themselves with work in hopes that the right opportunity for self-sufficiency would materialize.
“In New York, I worked as a nurse aide. I was babysitting. I worked in a factory. I had two, sometimes three jobs because back then minimum wage was $3.25 an hour,” she says. “Us Latinos are a hard-work people. We’re always working for a better life.”
After visiting her sister and mother who had been living in Omaha, Zonia decided it was time for a change of pace for her family. By then, she had a young daughter, Jennifer, to look after and her husband was settled in his factory position.
“I liked Omaha,” she explains. Fourteen years in New York was enough. “I wanted to move. So, I told my husband I was going to live there. He didn’t want to come so he stayed in New York for a year until he finally made the move.”
In Omaha, Zonia worked as a hospital housekeeper, a factory line worker, and cleaned offices. Her husband, Juan, spent 13 years working for Tyson Foods. The couple earned their U.S. citizenship in 2006.
Though thousands of miles from her homeland, Zonia says she would bring her culture to others in the form of pupusas she cooked at her dinner table. Zonia admitted she often thought about opening a Salvadorian restaurant but would bat the idea away.
“Era me suena,” she exclaims. It was her dream. “A lot of people would say, ‘You have a good hand to make food, Zonia.’ So I thought about it more.”
Those positive comments, eventually, led her to take business classes to seek out more information on how to open a small business. Prior to opening Latino Legacy at 7755 L St. in December 2012, Zonia says she spent a great deal of time conceptualizing how her restaurant would be different to compete against the countless others in the area.
“Different cultures have different tastes,” she says.
That was her ticket to capitalize on a traditional Salvadorian recipe for pupusas, and her inspiration to offer more Central and South American cuisine.
“At my restaurant you’ll find something for everyone,” she says.
Latino Legacy carries an ample showcasing of Latin American dishes, including Puerto Rico’s mofongo (mashed plantains), Colombia’s bandeja paisa (grilled steak, sausage, pork dish), Peru’s jalea mixta (seafood platter), Mexico’s huevos rancheros (egg breakfast dish) and other Latino culinary offerings.
“Very authentic food,” says Veronica Pankowski, visiting the restaurant for the first time. “It was a great first experience eating traditional Salvadoran cuisine. I didn’t realize there’s a regional difference in how the food is prepared along with the ingredients that are native to the country.”
Pankowski ordered enchiladas. Instead of receiving soft shells lathered in a red chilé sauce similar to Mexican enchiladas, she was presented hard-shelled tortillas topped with coleslaw, chicken, and a halved hard-boiled egg. “It was much different than I had expected, but tasty nonetheless,” she says.
The restaurant has become quite the family business as both her husband and daughter work, wait, and help out in the kitchen. Depending on the time of day, you’ll catch her playing in the lounge near the pool table with her 4-year-old grandson.
In a time where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, Zonia continues to keep her Salvadoran roots alive in her family and her business through her love of food. It is part of her identity that she hopes will someday thrive with her grandson.
“It’s important not to lose the culture of our country. We are a proud people,” she says. “I was an immigrant who worked hard. It’s important that people know that. We’re here to create our own opportunities through hard work, just as I did.”
Although the first three years were the toughest, Zonia says foot traffic at the restaurant has picked up greatly due to the popularity of pupusas. A Google search indicates that there are seven Salvadorian restaurants in the city that also offer similar menu items.
Yet, Zonia credits her restaurant’s longevity and pupuseria success to authenticity and her family’s generosity.
“I feel happy when I give,” she says. She gives of her time and money, and shares her culture with those in need. “God has done more for me than I could ever return.”
Visit @latinolegacyrestaurant on Facebook for more information.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.