Soul food, though a term commonly associated with cuisine deriving from the stalwart constitutions of antebellum slaves who could concoct deliciousness from ingredients deemed inferior for the meals served on the masters’ table, can mean more than that.
One of my favorite questions to ask friends is, “What is your personal soul food?” That is, what kind of grub most resonates with their soul; what foods are most, at the risk of seeming mystical, most spiritually impacting? And as it goes for individual preference, so it goes for ethnicities of food. If Taco Bell and Chi Chi’s, among manifold other culprits, represent Mexican eating at their most soulless, catering to notions of convenience and accommodation to taste buds unused or unwilling meet authenticity on its own terms, Lupita’s (1307 N. Center St, Beaver Dam) may represent its most soulful iteration north of Milwaukee and south of Green Bay.
Though not as conspicuous as it once was, in a strip mall amidst a nail salon and a tavern, it still doesn’t shout its presence. That Lupita’s shares space with a bodega carrying groceries catering to the area’s Mexican immigrant, migrant worker and Mexican-American population, may give the impression to some of the eatery as an afterthought to an already bustling business. Some people must not want ‘unfancy,’ if hearty food made by a people for those same people.
If you visit Lupita’s, and you’re not Mexican, you’re likely in the minority. In my numerous experiences there, it’s likelier to see clientele of European or Asian descent picking up some of their freshly-made guacamole or picking up a few items from the other side of the business than they would be to take a seat around the Our Last of Guadalupe statue and TV’s tuned to a Spanish-language music video station, Univision or Soccer Channel (or Nickelodeon or Disney Channel if the owners’ grandkids have the remotes.) It’s as apt an atmosphere as any to try dishes not possessed of the corporatized mass crossover appeal of tacos, burritos and nachos. Like birria.
Or technically, birria de chivo. That is a bowl of thick liquid somewhere between stew and soup and, in this case, featuring goat. Readers who recall my review of Ashley Bar-B-Que in Milwaukee already know some of my affinity for the bearded, horned, leanly scrumptious critter that’s a major protein source for much of the world apart from the U.S. Lupita’s is the closest place to order it (and buy it frozen) from my humble home in Waupun. Here it’s cut into bone-in chunks, made tender by simmering in its own juices and a combination of spices, chiles and vinegar and swimming in what’s neither quite heavy nor broth. For added nutrition and flavor tantalizingly on the fresh and sour side, drop the sides of finely chopped onions and dried cilantro into the bowl. And don’t neglect the lime slices; squeeze them into the mix, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll let them seep and float about as you eat the rest. Scoop the meat onto straight-from-the-grill corn or flour tortillas, layer a little of the prepared-on-site salsa (it seems as if their weaker variety often gets served to folks of my melanin level, but it still packs a bite stronger than its competition for miles around) that comes with the thick, crispy complimentary chips, roll ‘em up, and eat it over the bowl so as not make a mess.
My dining companion during my latest birria lunch opted for a ham sandwich. Or torta de jamon (ha-MOAN) in the native tongue. With thin slices of smoked pork spread over what looks like a wider, tapered white roll with the hint of crustiness on better bratwurst buns, it was otherwise garnished with lettuce, refried beans, white Chihuahua cheese and slices of tomato and jalapeno. Nothing like he had ever had prior, he enjoyed it enough to remark on his satisfaction several times throughout the meal.
Lupita’s has offered a nigh divine version of sopapillas, the Mexican dessert of corn or wheat flour chips drizzled with honey and cinnamon. That’s the way they’re made there, anyway, it may still be there, and they’re wondrous. But when my friend asked about sweet ways to top off our feed, the owners runway-comely daughter acting as our waitress on an especially busy Saturday, only mentioned the flan. The gelatin-like custard with a light yellow tint with a caramelized top and a hint of vanilla didn’t rival the sopapillas, but we left satisfied and in no mood to complain.
Other favorites of mine here include menudo (soup made with beef stomach, or tripe, with chickpeas and corn hominy in a peppery stock, nothing to do with Puerto Rican boy bands), fiery chicken entree pollo (PO-yo) ala diablo, and a couple of its egg-based breakfast plates. Even one of Lupita’s burritos, the norteno-made with shredded beef, and guac’ has done me right. Seafood offerings rely heavily on shrimp, but the ceviche, sweetly pickled whitefish and avocado slices on tostadas.
In the interest of full disclosure, the above review was meant to be part of a comparison/contrast feature with a similar eatery in Appleton. Confusion regarding a restaurant in Waukesha and the unexpected death of my car’s battery resulted in the above verbiage. Yours truly hopes to revisit the aforementioned eateries in the future for Scene. That said, though Fondy has one or two worthwhile Mexican dining options, Lupita’s makes a serious argument for a bit of a road trip for food of a type you simply won’t find more locally.