Saul Cifuentes and Norma Castaneda have turned Norma's mother's authentic Mexican recipes into a family-run restaurant on Bertha Street.
Lupita's opened in November at 1500 Bertha St., the building that for decades housed B's Cuban restaurant. The property then became a variety of other short-lived eateries, including Chango Loco and more recently the Lucky Day cafe. It sat empty for awhile, until Cifuentes and Castaneda negotiated a workable lease and started serving her mother's recipes on Nov. 16.
Cifuentes was born in Guatemala, while Castaneda is from Mexico. The pair has been together for 15 years, married for five years and living in Florida since the early '90s.
They had previously lived in Key West before moving to Port Charlotte and opening the first version of Lupita's Mexican restaurant.
"When we opened the first restaurant, which we had for four years, my mother taught him all her recipes," Castaneda said, proudly looking at her husband as he took a seat in the restaurant's dining room.
With a struggling economy hitting Port Charlotte harder than Key West, the couple returned to the Southernmost City two years ago for the island's job market. Cifuentes worked in a variety of kitchens in town, while Castaneda worked in local resorts.
"Then we saw this place available for rent. After awhile, the rent came down, and we decided to do a restaurant again," Cifuentes said, adding that the Lupita's menu features tried-and-true, traditional, authentic Mexican food. "It's the same things we cook at home, and everything is fresh. We don't use canned beans or vegetables and we make our rice every day."
The family also makes their own corn tortillas, chorizo sausage and chile rellenos, or stuffed peppers.
"I've been surprised that more people here ask for and enjoy corn tortillas," Castaneda said, adding that Americans often prefer the less-authentic flour tortillas. "But we can make any dish with either corn or flour tortillas, depending on what people like."
So far, the chile rellenos have been a popular item, along with Lupita's burritos, "because they're really big," filled with ground beef, chicken, pork, beans and cheese, Cifuentes said.
The menu also includes the expected assortment of crunchy and soft tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, tamales and sizzling fajitas.
Mexican music plays throughout the casual dining room, which is adorned with the traditional red, green and white of the Mexican flag. Carry out and delivery are available, along with off-site catering, Cifuentes said, happy to bring his food to people's homes or special events.
Lupita's offers a dozen daily lunch specials for $7.95, such as two fish tacos, two enchiladas, a large burrito or a quesadilla, all with the traditional accompaniment of rice, beans and a small salad.
The restaurant carries Mexican beers, such as Modelo, Tecate and Sol, along with wine, sangria and margaritas, along with assorted flavors of Jarritos, or Mexican sodas.
Three generations of the Castaneda/Cifuentes clan can be seen at the restaurant on any given day, with the owners' son, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren all lending a hand -- or coloring quietly at a back corner table.
"So far it's been mostly locals who have found us here," Cifuentes said, happy to be cultivating a local following in the building that drew a nonstop lunch crowd to B's for more than 15 years.
The name Lupita's hearkens back to Mexicans' devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary. The name Guadalupe is a common first name for both men and women, and is frequently shortened to Lupita for women and to Lupe for men.
"We're here because God is good with us," Castaneda emphasized. "We never knew his plan for us, but this was it."