Atlanta Orders In: La Oaxaquena owner makes stellar food, and loves giving back

This feast of takeout dishes from Taqueria La Oaxaquena in Jonesboro includes: chile rellenos; a plate of four tacos; and chicken mole. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This feast of takeout dishes from Taqueria La Oaxaquena in Jonesboro includes: chile rellenos; a plate of four tacos; and chicken mole. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Rosalia Ruiz may be short of stature, but she is mighty in the kitchen.

Since she was 16, the Oaxaca, Mexico, native, who stands 5-feet-tall, has cooked for a living. She made tacos and quesadillas and sold them on the streets of her hometown, because she needed the money. She had eight brothers, an alcoholic father and an exacting mother, who taught her the secrets of their ancient cuisine — the complex moles, vibrant sauces, rich barbacoas.

Not long after moving to Atlanta in 1995, Ruiz discovered an outdoor flea market on Buford Highway — the perfect place to hawk tamales. Before she and her husband could save enough cash to buy a car, she would pack tamales in a canasta (basket) and take MARTA to the market. When she was told she couldn’t sell food without a permit, she worried that she might get deported. Eventually, she started a food truck, followed by her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, which ended up folding, she said, because of her lack of experience.

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Tlayudas are the No. 1 seller at La Oaxaquena; this one was made with al pastor meat. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tlayudas are the No. 1 seller at La Oaxaquena; this one was made with al pastor meat. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Today, Ruiz’s cameo graces the logo of Taqueria La Oaxaquena in Jonesboro, a 14-year-old fast-casual spot that many connoisseurs of fine regional Mexican cooking will tell you is the area’s best. Though the restaurant has won accolades, Ruiz has shied away from giving interviews, because she feels her English isn’t sufficient.

I first reached out to her in August, and, after months of back and forth with her friend and neighbor, Grecia Cortavarria, I finally got the two of them on the phone last week. In the conversation, Ruiz described her journey, and her relentless pursuit of her dream to own her own restaurant. “I’m very happy, because I worked real hard,” she said.

La Oaxaquena’s owner got her start in Atlanta selling tamales at a flea market; these are two of her beauties, pork with red sauce and chicken mole wrapped in banana leaf. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
La Oaxaquena’s owner got her start in Atlanta selling tamales at a flea market; these are two of her beauties, pork with red sauce and chicken mole wrapped in banana leaf. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Her success was not immediate, however.

“I cried for two years, because the United States is very different than Oaxaca,” she said of her early days in Atlanta. Her original plan had been to return to Mexico and start a restaurant. More than once, she almost gave up and went back home.

When she found the location for the original La Oaxaquena, on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro, she didn’t have the funds to make the down payment. In the end, the landlord gave her the keys anyway. On her first day, she had a rush of customers, eager to sample her tacos and menudo. It’s been that way ever since.

La Oaxaquena’s Rosalia Ruiz opened her restaurant 14 years ago; here, she chats with customers during a busy Thursday lunchtime. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
La Oaxaquena’s Rosalia Ruiz opened her restaurant 14 years ago; here, she chats with customers during a busy Thursday lunchtime. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

When the pandemic hit, her restaurant closed for two weeks, but regular customers urged her to come back. Today, business is at 64% of what it was before COVID-19 — a remarkable number, and a testament to her delicious tacos, tlayudas, huaraches, sopes, flautas and gorditas.

When I asked Ruiz, 60, if she still works in the kitchen, she was stunned that I would pose such a silly question. Of course! (Her husband, Oscar Baiza Arteaga, and her son Daniel are also involved in the business.)

Rosalia Ruiz is the owner and chef at La Oaxaquena in Jonesboro. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Rosalia Ruiz is the owner and chef at La Oaxaquena in Jonesboro. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Though Ruiz is grateful that her family and staff are healthy, “My heart is not very strong when I see the people in my country,” she said, referring to the way many Mexicans have struggled to pay for food and medicine during the pandemic. Recently, she sent money to her sisters in Oaxaca, so they could make tamales and take them to hospitals. They fed 300 people in a single day.

Now that she’s found a measure of financial stability, giving back is a big part of this humble Oaxaquena’s heart. “She doesn’t necessarily worry about the money, because she has a lot of faith in what she does,” Cortavarria said. “That’s why I think she’s very happy now that she’s done well, because her dream has been to have a restaurant, but also to be able to give back to people in her country, because they don’t have the resources, so I think that’s really her main goal.”

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

La Oaxaquena is on Mount Zion Road in Jonesboro. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
La Oaxaquena is on Mount Zion Road in Jonesboro. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

TAQUERIA LA OAXAQUENA

Menu: traditional Mexican, including many Oaxacan classics

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: chicken mole, chile rellenos, tlayuda with pastor meat, a tamale with chicken mole, a pork tamale with red sauce, four tacos (lengua, cabeza, carnitas, campechanos). The tamales were beautiful, authentic and delicious, and I love the mole in any form. The cheesy poblano rellenos were exceptional, and the tlayuda was good as a cold leftover, just like pizza. But, man, those tacos and hand-crafted tortillas. I really loved the incredibly tender lengua and cabeza.

Service options: dine-in and takeout (order by phone or in person); no delivery

Outdoor dining: no

Mask policy: mandatory for customers and employees

Address, phone: 605 Mount Zion Road, Jonesboro; 770-960-3010

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays-Tuesdays; closed Wednesdays

Website: taquerialaoaxaquena.com

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