The history of Doña Maria Tamales Restaurant is built on a love story: A love for food, tradition, family and friends.
At Doña María Tamales in Las Vegas, some things never change.
The Mexican restaurant’s famous tamales, for instance–the recipe was fixed on day one. Many employees are original. Some of the customers too.
“It’s definitely like my family,” says owner Neriza Johnson. ”It’s fulfilling that you see them coming in as babies and then they have babies … You have weddings and first communions and birthdays … all these memories … so many memories.”
Johnson’s parents, Alfredo and Elvia, founded the downtown Las Vegas location in 1980–a tiny shop on Charleston and 10th Street that moved to its current, larger space at Las Vegas Boulevard soon after.
Johnson took over in 1999, opening a second restaurant on North Tenaya Way a year earlier. She has been around since the beginning, helping out after elementary school.
“My job was ‘fountain girl,’” she recalls. “They put me in a crate and I would make the sodas.”
She has since worked every single position there is from dishwasher to line cook to cashier. “That’s been my only job,” she admits. “I’ve only been working in the restaurant.”
Alfredo and Elvia now bring a grandparent vibe to the table, joking around with the staff. On busy days, like this month’s Día de la Candelaria or the busiest tamale day of the year, Christmas (last year there were lines out the door), every single tamale gets their personal stamp of approval.
“My parents say, ‘In order for the food to taste good everybody needs to be happy,’” says Johnson. “I think that’s been the secret for the restaurant.”
The patriarch of the family met the matriarch after immigrating to the U.S.
It’s his family’s recipes from generations past that inspired the restaurant’s authentic Mexican menu. Corn husks and chiles for the tamales are imported from México. Each one is meticulously hand-rolled.
“I know a lot of restaurants like to tweak things a little bit,” says Johnson. “Why mess something up that’s worked for so many years?”
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