Mike Sr. walks out of the kitchen of Lerua’s holding an ear of corn in each hand. “The perfect kernel has a dimple,” he says, running his finger along a row of uniformly indented kernels. “If you push down on a kernel and it pops, it’s too tender.”
“We know our corn,” says Mike Hultquist Jr., chef and, along with his father, co-owner of Lerua’s Fine Mexican Foods in Tucson. Top-quality white corn, which the family sources from Chihuahua, Sonora, or Sinaloa, depending on the season, is essential for their well-known and widely adored green corn tamales, which have a signature dough of fresh ground kernels rather than masa and are wrapped in fresh green corn husks.
Before working with their current “corn broker,” also affectionately known as “the corn guy,” Mike Sr. recalls that his mother, Carmen, would send him to Mexico with $500 cash and a flashlight to purchase the fresh corn necessary for the tamales. He remembers walking across the border and struggling to get many of the vendors to take him seriously until he told them that he didn’t just want a pound or two, he wanted to buy their entire truck of corn.
Shining the flashlight into the ears of corn let him see how translucent the kernels were. A kernel that allows too much light through has too much liquid and will produce an overly wet green corn tamale dough. He has other tricks too. “There better be worms,” he explains. “They don’t waste their time on bad corn or GMOs.”
“The corn guys kind of find us,” says Mike Sr. Over the years, Lerua’s has developed a reputation for paying top dollar for the best corn. When it’s good, they’ll buy two to four acres at a time. There’s a school and church in a village near Ímuris, Sonora, with a plaque out front which mentions Lerua’s helping make the buildings possible by buying their corn for so many years.
Mike Sr. describes his late mother Carmen as, “a very enterprising woman with a degree in chemistry.” Carmen was a Tucson native whose father immigrated to the area from Palma, Italy, after a couple-year pit stop in Guaymas, Sonora. She graduated from Tucson High and the University of Arizona. According to Mike Jr., the story of how Lerua’s came into the Hultquist family starts with Carmen Hultquist’s tenacity. “Whatever it takes, I’ll do it,” was her mantra when she began speaking with Tony Lerua about the possibility of purchasing Lerua’s.
“She really wanted something of her own,” says Mike Jr. “She really didn’t want to be a housewife.” So when Tony Lerua told her she could work for him without pay for four years and only then would he think about selling her the restaurant, she did it. “She was a class act,” says Mike Jr.
In the early 1920s, in the earliest iteration of Lerua’s, Tony Lerua’s wife, Elisa, starting cooking out of their home on Fourth Street. “People would come with gallon buckets,” to buy or barter for Elisa’s food, explains Mike Jr. When Lerua’s went brick and mortar, it maintained its original spirit of feeding the community by producing quantities for take out in a market setting with a couple tables.
At the time that his grandmother bought it, Lerua’s was what Mike Jr. calls “a good old fashioned Chicago or New York deli with Mexican flair.” There was a freezer stocked with albondigas and tamales, shelves of canned goods like escabeche, and steam tables. Adorning the front of the building were what Mike Sr. calls “plants that looked like they would eat you.” Mike Sr.’s brother Brad, who runs El Torero in Tucson, concurs. He remembers “all those weird plants” out front—some people thought it was a florist.
It stayed that way until the ’70s when the family revamped the space, adding more tables and making it feel more like a restaurant. However, Mike Jr. explains that even after Lerua’s had a more traditional set-up, “everybody walked through the kitchen and said ‘Hi’ to Carmen.” The parking lot would be full and the restaurant would be empty because everyone was in back with her, Mike Jr. remembers. “They would talk to her as if they knew her since high school,” he says. After her husband died, a number of suitors frequented Lerua’s, including a gentlemen Mike Jr. calls “The Reverend.” “He was in love with my grandma,” he says.
Mike Jr. explains that, for the most part, “they still produce quantities like Mrs. Lerua.” The large batches of meats, beans, and tamales that they make every other day during the week are measured in gallons and dozens. He admits that, particularly after culinary school and three years working in fine dining establishments in California, he struggled with the idea of making such large amounts. “Why are you doing 15 gallons?” he asks, explaining that he later realized, “This is not about a five-course meal. You’re going to feed people.” In talking about the women who make up Lerua’s culinary heritage, he makes these connections often—feeding, nourishing, and community. “Lerua’s has, in a sense, been feeding the community,” for almost a hundred years, he says.
For 44 years, Rita Reyes has been opening the kitchen at Lerua’s and doing prep work for the green corn. It takes 11 hours to make a batch of green corn tamales. “The thing about green corn is it’s a labor of love,” says Mike Jr. The green corn tamales at Lerua’s are still made according to Carmen’s original recipe, save for the lard, which they stopped using in 1995. Mike Jr. believes their current oil blend produces a better finished product in addition to being a little healthier. Plus, it allows them to offer a vegan version.
“The thing about green corn
is it’s a labor of love.”
The corn needs to be shucked and the silks removed. Reyes and other women in the kitchen take the silks home and use them to make tea. The corn is then cut from the cob by hand, resulting in 10 to 12 gallons of cut corn. In her day, Carmen bought a volcanic stone mill that is “70 to 80 years old and still going strong,” according to Mike Jr. It mills the kernels just enough to slightly break them apart.
After the tamales steam, they have to be re-shaped. Mike Jr. compares the dough to a soufflé—it will rise and fall, changing shape during cooking. He calls Alicia Ramirez, known as “Lecho,” the head tamale maker who has made green corn tamales at Lerua’s for 18 years, “a perfectionist” when it comes to reshaping the tops after cooking. “She loves to make them look good,” he says.
During an average week, they sell 20 to 35 dozen green corn tamales take out per day and 20 dozen per day in the restaurant. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they sell about 5,000 dozen green corn tamales alone. In preparation, they stockpile pallets of the best-selling tamales at a local cold storage facility.
After culinary school, when he returned to Lerua’s to take on a larger role, Mike Jr. remembers his father telling him one thing: don’t touch the regular menu. So, he didn’t. He’s particularly proud of their barbacoa, his father’s recipe, which uses beef marinated in escabeche, giving it unexpected depth of flavor. Their carne seca is made in-house from start to finish. Mike Jr. created the specials menu, which constantly changes, to give himself a creative outlet but honor his father’s request to keep the regular menu intact.
On the day I visited, it featured cider-braised carnitas tacos and “L.B.C tacos,” with Maine lobster, crispy pork belly, and chorizo. He recently collaborated with Iron John’s Brewing to create Masa Cheve, a green corn lager that’s now available at the restaurant. When he isn’t at Lerua’s, Mike Jr. typically spends two days a week at his mother’s restaurant, La Roca, in Nogales.
“This place is really embedded in Tucson,” says Mike Jr. of Lerua’s. “A kid just got baptized, someone just got promoted—they’re here.” He enjoys seeing the younger families in the area beginning to make it their own. Despite its storied history, Lerua’s future remains uncertain due to the city’s plans to widen Broadway. Although they’ve been in limbo, holding off on improvements as a result of the plans for decades, Mike Sr. now thinks they’ll lose the building within a year.
Lerua’s is 93 this year. “I would love to see it hit 100,” says Mike Jr. ✜
Lerua’s Fine Mexican Foods. 2005 E. Broadway Blvd. 520.624.0322. LeruasFineMexicanFoods.com.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer, New American Homesteader, and Punch. Her first book, Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before, will be out in February 2016.