For This Boston Restaurant, Scarce Ingredients Add to Pain of Lockdown

Villa Mexico Cafe has weathered its share of crises, but the coronavirus is bringing supply problems its owners didn't see in the worst snowstorms

Bessie King at work at Villa Mexico Cafe
NBC10 Boston

One problem that the coronavirus pandemic has caused for Boston food scene mainstay Villa Mexico Cafe is that they often can't find any tomatillos to make the salsa verde for a fan-favorite Friday special, enchiladas verde.

It's not the worst problem facing mother-daughter co-owners Julie and Bessie King -- they're struggling to simply survive and trying to keep giving everyone on staff shifts as well -- but it's a weird one, and it's making life harder, they told us in the latest episode of our new podcast, "The Dish I Miss."

"We cannot get the tomatillos, we cannot get right now the poblano peppers," said Julie King. "Believe me, even the tomatoes that my produce guy brings me … it is not the same."

For her daughter, Bessie, it's "highly preoccupying" not finding staples, let alone specialty ingredients like tomatillos.

That makes it harder to stand out "and say, 'Hey, here's one of the dishes you love as much as we do, come get it,' because we simply can't make it," she said.

That wasn't the case when Villa Mexico Cafe struggled through snowstorms, "or even in the worst issues, like when the government wanted to ban avocados from Mexico," Bessie said. "I paid up to like $80 for a case of avocados. One case! It was bad. But I could still find them."

The restaurant has been in business for 20 years, surviving a fire at its first location in Woburn, an extended illness for Julie, a move to a gas station in Beacon Hill and its last move to the current location in the Financial District.

Bessie told us that she put her career on hold to join the restaurant she'd grown up with and that she and her mother had a five-year plan to get it operating well enough on its own. "This was really the year when we were gonna say alright, it took us five years but we made it. So that was the plan. And then, COVID comes."

Struggling restaurants hoped third-party delivery apps would be a lifeline, but some say the apps' hefty fees are making it more difficult to survive.

She also recently spoke to NBC10 Boston about how she's making her own deliveries right now, rather than using third parties like Grubhub or Uber Eats.

But both mother and daughter -- proud of being one of Boston's most authentic Mexican restaurants and one that's owned by women -- don't plan on letting the virus stop them. Among their efforts, they're selling virtual burritos.

Julie has a message for her colleagues in the restaurant industry: "Don't lose the faith. We need to keep going, because we have been working too hard in our restaurants, in our businesses, that we cannot let them go."

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