After 20 years, hers is a familiar story with fans of Mexican food in Boston: After losing her husband in 1997, Julie King moved from her home in Texas to the Boston area with her daughter, Bessie. King, who was born in Mexico City and spent much of her youth in her father’s home of Puebla, had obtained a law degree in Mexico that was virtually unusable in the United States without acquiring further education. Faced with renewing her profession in Boston or sending her daughter to a good school, King chose the latter, working all manner of jobs, including delivering newspapers, to pay the tuition. She never intended to run a restaurant, but when the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at the chance and opened Villa Mexico Cafe in Woburn, a city just north of Boston.
“In those days I was missing my food a lot,” she said. King bemoaned the renditions of Mexican food that she felt were prominent at the time, full of sugary tomato sauces and enchiladas that bore no resemblance to what she knew from home. She wanted to show the community what traditional Mexican cooking meant for her.
When she came across a restaurant space in Woburn, she made some inquiries at the dry cleaner next door, where she found the owner of the space. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, she walked away with an agreement to lease the restaurant for $500 a month, with the first three months free, to give her time to clean and prep the space. Her sister and brother-in-law came to help, and she opened the restaurant in late 1999 with just five tables. Soon, Villa Mexico became a gathering spot for people who walked in strangers and left friends, King said. Her friends, as she calls her customers, came in from Arlington, Lexington, Burlington, Stoneham, and elsewhere.
“It was a big party or reunion every day, especially on weekends,” King said.
She used to seat couples that didn’t know each other together at tables for four.
“Everybody was like a family, because I always sit people together; you know, the tables were full,” she said.
Laurel Collins was one of the first customers at Villa Mexico in Woburn and discovered the restaurant while walking around the small downtown area, near where her children attended preschool. Now they are grown, and the family still makes the trip into the city to see the Kings at Villa Mexico on Boston’s Water Street.
“Julie puts a lot of love into her cooking. She also puts a lot of love into getting to know her customers and making friendships, when you come back over and over again,” said Collins. “Everything is made fresh every single day. I have never seen a family work so hard in their lives.”
In the early days of Villa Mexico, King focused on dishing out meals she loved from her childhood, like albondigas (meatballs) in morito chile sauce and carne a la tampiqueña with mole poblano enchiladas. According to Collins, King’s was the only restaurant nearby serving Mexican food, let alone with such reliable quality and warm hospitality.
“She’s one of my kids’ favorite people and she’s always there with the hugs, she’s always there with a ‘hello friend,’ is always there to provide a lunch or a meal,” said Collins.
Two years into operations in Woburn, Villa Mexico had a fire, leaving King and her customers without a home for her cooking. Though the fire was devastating, King said looking back she felt grateful for the beautiful final day she had in that location.
“It was a party in that place,” she said, with many customers from Boston, Arlington, and elsewhere, including some of her first local customers. “I think that all of them came to say goodbye.”
King later reopened in a different location in Woburn before relocating to a rather unlikely spot in Boston: inside a gas station on Beacon Hill. There, to accommodate the space, King converted the restaurant’s menu to a more fast-food style rather than dine-in, offering grilled burritos, tacos, tamales, tostadas, and quesadillas. When that location had to close for building renovations in January 2013, and after King learned she couldn’t return to the same spot, the community rallied to help find her a new location by the end of 2014; a regular customer became her landlord in a new building on Water Street in Downtown Boston.
In the meantime, she provided catering and sold her famed black salsa — a recipe King acquired from her grandma that’s made with tomatoes, roasted peppers, and garlic. King prepares the salsa from scratch to this day at Villa Mexico and even sells it in jars on the restaurant’s website. It gets its color from small chiles, which are roasted until black and then incorporated, skin-on, into the salsa.
Rick Mayfield became a Villa Mexico loyalist while living close to the gas station restaurant.
“My roommate turned me onto it and I gave it a try and I was blown away by the quality of the food,” he said. “And I think more importantly, Mama King — Julie — and her daughter Bessie are just so nice and they treat everyone like family. They sort of make you feel at home.”
Mayfield said one of his favorite items is the spicy chicken burrito, grilled with a crispy shell. He was devastated when the gas station operation closed, but he held onto a punch card the restaurant had given him — 10 punches and he’d receive a free burrito; he had nine.
“So I was checking their Facebook page and when they finally announced that they were reopening, it was a great feeling,” said Mayfield.
Villa Mexico finally reopened in Downtown Boston’s Financial District in January of 2016, and when Mayfield visited, he brought his punch card, which now hangs as a decoration in the restaurant. In Villa Mexico’s new home on Water Street, King has continued to amass a loyal following of people who flock to the tiny storefront, including regulars from past locations, people working in the neighborhood, and newcomers of all demographics.
“We’re not a chain-style atmosphere at all, and we love building relationships with our friends. We spend so much time at the business that the restaurant is like our home,” King said.
The current restaurant has a handful of seats along the window overlooking Water Street, and there are dark beams that stretch upward and across the ceiling, supporting decorative wrought-iron chandeliers hanging overhead. The upper walls are painted a deep yellow, with white subway tiles below. Decorative plates, delicately painted animal figurines, and framed pictures are on display around the restaurant.
In the open kitchen, King, her daughter Bessie, and their small team prepare the simple yet in-demand menu for Villa Mexico’s guests, roasting chiles en masse on the gas range, shaping tamales one by one, and making each burrito to order.
“Through the years we’ve really focused on the word-of-mouth ‘advertising,’ on people knowing us, our story, our family, our team, and obviously our food, so that they feel welcome and happy when they come eat,” King said. “We are beyond blessed to have these bonds with so many wonderful people; more than the success of the food and the business, the stories and the memories are what we value most.”
For the tamales, King insists on mixing the dough by hand, following her grandmother’s instructions. “You have to put warmth in the dough with your own hands; this helps with the texture,” she said. “I prepare the sauces first and then the meat or chicken, and lastly I mix them together to give them the best final seasoning.”
From King’s neighborhood in Mexico City, close to Coyoacán, she brings intimate knowledge of seafood, cooking and preparing beans, and methods for preparing mole poblano, which she lists among her favorite dishes.
“My grandma used to do it from scratch, and the mole poblano has a lot of ingredients,” she said.
Mole poblano is a traditional Mexican dish most often made with poblano chiles in Puebla, where King’s father’s family lived. It’s comprised of several kinds of dried and fresh chiles, boiled tomatoes, cinnamon, and other spices, and King incorporates a burnt tortilla and a piece of white bread for texture and added flavor. The mixture gets blended into a paste and is then combined with a mixture of tomato juice, onions, garlic, and chicken broth, making the paste dissolve to a smooth consistency.
“It’s a nice combination of sweet and spicy,” said Collins — your mouth won’t be burning, but she recommends eating it with one of Villa Mexico’s aguas frescas.
For the menu at Villa Mexico, King has incorporated her mole poblano into a burrito with chicken breast, served grilled, as it would be in Mexico City, King said. It’s also available as a plate, served with chicken breast and a bed of rice, with black beans and salsa.
A melding of King’s culinary background with the convenience of a grilled burrito, the mole burrito is now a favorite item on the menu for Villa Mexico, according to King.
“The mole burrito was born one day that my daughter was very hungry,” King said. Her daughter Bessie didn’t want the whole mole plate — which consists of rice topped with chicken breast in mole, served with black beans and house salsa — so King prepared mole in a burrito with sour cream. King said it was so good she included it on the menu. “We nicknamed it ‘La Niña’ for my daughter, and that’s when it became well known.”
King learned her philosophy of cooking with patience while in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother.
“My grandma used to say, ‘You want a taco, you want a torta, you want some eggs?’ She was cooking all the time, but she never complained about cooking for everybody and at different times. She was always happy to see her kids in the kitchen with her. And that’s the way I grew up.”
The food at Villa Mexico mirrors the way King grew up cooking, she said, “in the way that you cook it in your house. My place is not a commercial cooking place, it’s homemade cooking.”
King said she strives to bring the feel of home cooking to her dishes at Villa Mexico as much as possible. Her specials, served on Fridays, showcase slightly more complex recipes. Some favorites from the original sit-down restaurant in Woburn make their return, such as albondigas and chile rellenos, or fish tacos.
“The secret in our kitchen is: You never can be in a hurry,” King said. “You have to take your time to prepare your food, you have to be happy to prepare your food, and you have to cook the food with extra love. That is your main ingredient.”