By Ryan Michaels
Estela Tirado’s travels have taken her around the globe to places like Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, but recently she has embarked on a journey in the culinary world with her small business, Mexicatessen, where she sells different Mexican dishes each week in Birmingham and spreads fun facts and stories about the regions where the dishes originate.
Through Mexicatessen, Tirado said she aims to introduce people to Mexico’s diverse culture. “People already know Latinos are not monolithic, but [I] also [want to show] that even Mexicans are not monolithic,” Tirado said.
Tirado publishes a menu featuring a different selection of Mexican dishes on Instagram. Buyers order in advance and can pick up from one of two locations in either Birmingham’s Forest Park neighborhood, or in Vestavia Hills.
Tirado cooks out of a commercial kitchen space and hands out orders from her car.
In addition to cooking, Tirado wants to educate.
“I want to change that image that certain people maybe have formed of Mexico being uncultured, that people are not educated, that we don’t have a history – when we do – and we are very, very proud of it,” she said.
Mexicatessen has seen success, thanks in part to Jon O’Neal, who runs the popular @birminghamtacos Instagram account. O’Neal, who maintains a thorough catalog of places to get tacos and other authentic Mexican food throughout central Alabama, tried Tirado’s enchiladas Suizas and began sharing Mexicatessen on his page.
“I honestly owe him a lot of my clientele, because most of them, I want to say 80 percent, have found me through him,” she said.
Despite her happiness with Mexicatessen, Tirado said, she plans on keeping her day job as program officer with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. Preparing and selling the food is a special pastime, she said.
“For me, cooking is a joy. It’s a therapy. It’s a de-stressor,” Tirado said, “and I want it to maintain like that.”
She can trace the start of her restaurant back to January 2023 when she was invited onto an Internet radio station where the 1992 Mexican film “Like Water for Chocolate,” in which food plays a major role, was discussed.
Mole, a sauce and marinade prominent in Mexican cuisine, is prepared at one point in the film, so Tirado opted to bring some to the radio station. In the episode, cohost Gareth Jones described the mole as “stunningly delicious.”
Tirado said she had to hunt down the mole recipe from women in Mexico. In Mexican food, “there are secrets that have been passed on generation to generation,” Tirado said.
The hosts of the show asked her when she was going to start selling her food, but Tirado said she didn’t have any plans for selling at that time. She went on to start Mexicatessen in May.
Tirado, 36, was born in Los Angeles, California and raised in the nearby suburb of West Covina. About the age of 10, Tirado moved with her mother and her brother Cesar to Cullman County, Alabama, where some of her family lived, when the cost of living in LA was steadily rising.
In California, Tirado said, she had experienced a variety of cultural backgrounds, so being the only Latina in her class at Vinemont Middle School in Alabama wasn’t a huge shock.
The biggest change was simply the products Tirado’s family could find at the grocery store in Alabama, she said.
“It was a culture shock when it came to buying products (in Alabama). My mom, she would go to LA every two months and bring products to sell, like chiles and seasonings, et cetera because she couldn’t find it here (in Alabama),” Tirado said.
In 1999, Tirado’s mother Dolores, on a visit to Mexico with Tirado’s brothers Dionicio and Junior, was driving on a rainy day down a four-lane highway near Tuxpan, a small town in southern Jalisco, a central-western state in the country.
As Dolores drove, someone tried to pass the family in a trailer before sliding into their car, pinning them to a concrete impact wall before it gave way and Dolores, Dionicio and Junior fell off a cliff.
Their deaths, Tirado said, made her grow up “immediately.”
“I went from a preteen to late teen in my personality and my way of carrying myself,” Tirado said.
Additionally, losing her mother at such a young age, Tirado said, has left her without many memories and many “unanswered questions.”
“I know my mother was a great woman, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to know her as an adult, or even as a teenager,” Tirado said.
Shortly after her mother’s death, Tirado, around the age of 12, moved in with her father in Mexico. Tirado, who is fluent in Spanish, said she had already regularly visited Mexico in the summers and had friends when she arrived.
To The Fatherland
In Mexico, Tirado said, children are granted more freedom by parents, something she appreciates to this day.
“There’s still that possibility of kids being outside ’til the street lights are on. Childcare is not that expensive…I didn’t have to be driven everywhere, [and] my dad would just be like, ‘You’re going to so-and-so’s house. Okay, be careful,'” Tirado said.
In addition to her normal childhood activities, Tirado said she remembers accompanying her father on political meetings related to his work with growing agave, a plant used in the production of tequila, a major Mexican export.
Tirado remembers sharing experiences related to food with her father, driving out two hours to the nearest Costco, or buying so much produce at the central market in Guadalajara that vendors would think she and her father owned a restaurant.
Before Tirado graduated high school in 2005, she hadn’t really decided what she wanted to do.
She and her father had the understanding that she would go to ITESM, an elite university in Monterrey, and study international business, but nearing graduation day, Tirado decided that she wanted to backpack across Europe before starting college.
Tirado told her father her plans to travel across western Europe, stay in hostels and attend the Live 8 concert in London, UK. The cost for the six months of travel would be about the same for her father, as the first semester in college, she said.
While he pushed back at first, he let her go under the condition that she would call every day, at 8 a.m. his time.
Across four months, Tirado traveled throughout Europe, including Germany, Austria, Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain. 18 at the time, Tirado said she cried every time she got off the phone with her dad for the first two or three weeks.
While in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, Tirado recalled, she broke down on the phone with her father, and he reassured her.
“He [was] like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’m like, ‘Nothing,’ and he’s like, ‘No, tell me what’s wrong.’ I’m like, ‘I want to go back home. I don’t know if it’s worth it. I’m spending all the money.’ He’s like, ‘No, I’m super proud you’re doing this by yourself without knowing anyone,'” Tirado recalled.
Building A Life
In December 2005, Tirado returned to Mexico. In 2006, she started at ITESM as planned, studying international business, as her father, Constantino, wanted. But Tirado said she didn’t enjoy it, and by 2010, when she graduated with a degree in international relations, Constantino said the change was a “great decision.”
Tirado’s father died in 2012. Genetically predisposed to liver disease, he had battled with the illness for about 20 years. Tirado said she and her siblings were emotionally prepared for his passing.
Present at the hospital the day he passed, Tirado said, she also believes Constantino had been preparing her for his death all her life.
“I think that’s why he was very intentional in making sure that I was a very independent woman, that I was strong … because there was going to be the day where maybe I was going to be alone, so for me, it was very, very special, just being with him and sharing,” Tirado said.
In 2015, Tirado moved back to Birmingham, Alabama, where she got a job working for a conveyer company in Pell City, “just to get a job.” The commute was intense, so Tirado kept looking and found a job working for ¡HICA! (Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama), based in Homewood.
After working for ¡HICA! for a little over a year, Tirado said, she wanted something “more international” and applied for a variety of jobs, including a position in the international grants department at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City.
At Trinity, Tirado said she had the opportunity to travel widely once again. From her experiences abroad, both through Trinity and otherwise, Tirado learned the importance of being “adaptable,” she said.
She remembers once being in Kenya having to take Malaria pills every day “because those were the circumstances. If I wanted to eat, if I wanted to be healthy—it wasn’t ideal, but it was because of my health,” Tirado said.
NYC had “glitz and glamour,” but it was basically impossible to own a home, and extremely fast-paced, Tirado said.
“I was in Alabama before going to New York, so I was very used to the laidback kind of way of life, but just getting to New York, and everything’s a rush. You’re already late for everything, even if you leave home early.”
After three years at Trinity, Tirado said she came back down to Birmingham in 2019, where she returned to a position at ¡HICA!. In her work with the nonprofit, Tirado looked at each person who needed help as though they were a member of her own family.
“I used to [say] people crossed two or three countries to get here. At least, let’s acknowledge their willingness, their hunger to improve their lives, so I think that me seeing people I know in them, has helped me or has made me want to stay in community-service oriented roles,” Tirado said.
After two and a half years working with ¡HICA!, Tirado became a program officer with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. In her role, she works with individuals and organizations to request grant funding from the nonprofit for community service projects, as well as arts and cultural projects.
The throughline for her career has been her desire to help other people. “I think that I’m a person that’s very oriented to support people in making sure that they have the tools they need to thrive, to improve their quality of life,” Tirado said.
While Mexicatessen may help through “battling stereotypes” about Mexico, Tirado said the primary goal of the project is just to deepen others’ understanding of Mexican culture.
“[Mexicatessen is] bringing more in-depth knowledge of culture and art from Mexico, just not the surface, or what we see on TV,” Tirado said.
For more on Mexicatessen, visit Instagram @mexicatessenal.