Thursday, 10 October 2013 00:00

Johnson City business aiming big Featured

Written by Tommy Knisley
A busy morning is underway at Doña Eva. A busy morning is underway at Doña Eva. Tommy Knisley

Eva Becerra and her husband, Raul Rendon, have followed their dream. They are the owners of Doña Eva Meat Market & Mexican Deli in Johnson City.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, Becerra, Rendon and one or two assistants work in the kitchen preparing Mexican dishes of all sorts, but mostly tamales. The front door chimes once or twice as customers arrive. They swiftly pick up their order and head on their way, Eva returning to the kitchen once again.

 Rendon mans the kitchen and occasionally cracks a joke in Spanish, drawing the smiles and laughs of those working around him. This is what life looks like for them. This is what the American Dream looks like for many like Becerra and Rendon. This is what they aim for.

 It hasn’t always been this way. They, like everyone else in life, have had to adjust and sometimes make the best of their situation, but they persevered and now have much to show for it.

Becerra and Rendon moved to Tennessee six years ago from Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Becerra worked in a custom car shop while Rendon worked for the electric company. Rendon’s primary job was connecting the power lines and cables to newly constructed houses. The economic recession hit California particularly hard, with the housing market taking the largest hit. With the real estate industry grinding to a halt, Raul did not have enough work.

The well had dried up. They would have to move.

“We have family here in Tennessee,” said Becerra. “They were all like ‘Hey, come live with us down here’ and so we did and we have family at ETSU.”

Upon moving to Tennessee, Becerra worked as a stay-at-home mom while her husband continued to work for the power company, just not in California. He would often be away from home working in places such as Missouri and Arizona.

Becerra had always loved making tamales, especially with her grandmother’s recipe; then came the day a year and a half ago when she and her husband decided to open their own Mexican deli.

Eva Becerra and Raul Rendon at their shop.

Tamales are a unique dish in that recipes vary from person to person. They have their origins in the BC era. Tamales were ideal because they were full meals for folks on the go. This, in a way, made them the first self-contained travel meal, according to Casa de Tamales, a website specializing in tamale recipes.

A book written by Mark Charles Miller, simply titled, Tamales, further illustrates that tamales can be made in a variety of ways, many of which are very simple and inexpensive.

According to the book, tamales are a very economical dish.

Using their own unique recipe, Becerra and Rendon built their own brand with the Doña Eva Meat Market & Mexican Deli. Now, they also sell other types of food, but the tamales are still the favorite.

“When people say they like the tamales, I tell them they should try the other authentic food,” said Rendon.

According to Becerra, she sees people come in that originally lived in places like California and New Mexico. They come to the deli because they want cuisine that is authentic and exactly resembles what they used to eat when they lived out West.

Shortly after opening Doña Eva, Rendon was injured in a work-place accident. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of being injured on the job, the accident did free up more time for him to help Eva with the deli.

Every morning, they start work in the kitchen preparing the tamales. First, they cover the cornhusk, which forms the shell of the tamale, in a corn-like batter. Then it’s on to the meat which is poured down into the shell.

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The tamales are then steamed for three to four hours. They never do one batch at a time. Since tamales take a significant amount of time to prepare, Becerra and Rendon usually make several dozen at a time.

While the tamale-making process may somewhat generic among many Hispanics, Becerra emphasized that each person typically has their own method and recipe.

“They are all a bit unique,” she said. “This was my grandmother’s recipe.”

Becerra continued on to say that it seems to her that tamales may have had roots in the Appalachian region long before she and Rendon arrived. Visitors, many of them non-Hispanic, stop by sometimes to talk about their families and how they made tamales back in the day.

“When people say they like the tamales, I tell them they should try the other authentic food.”

                                     - Raul Rendon

However, it seems that for every family that has grown up with tamales, there’s the one that has no idea what it is.

“I’ve had people try to start eating the tamale like a burrito,” said Becerra with a laugh. “They have no idea how to eat it.”

The two of them have recently started selling tamales at the ETSU Farmer’s Market. Rendon typically drives the minivan out to the campus each Thursday morning and sets up the stand.

“We started selling at the Johnson City Farmer’s Market and then we heard about the one at ETSU,” said Rendon.

Rachel Ward is the overseer of the  ETSU Farmer’s Market.

“Rachel was great to work with,” said Rendon.

Aside from the two farmer’s markets being a source of income, they also see sales surge around Christmas time. According to Becerra, tamales are popular commodities around the holidays, the most popular being the chicken and jalapeño tamales.

Regardless of the time of year, Becerra and Rendon get to enjoy the American Dream of owning and operating their own business. They greet each patron with a smile and offer swift service. Beyond the business, Rendon is enrolled in English classes at ETSU to bolster his language skills.

In the future, they would like to set up tables and maybe expand to selling their products to local grocery stores. However, for the time being, they are content right where they are.

The Doña Eva Meat Market and Mexican Deli is located in the shopping center on the Bristol Highway. It sits right next to Carl Gregory Chrysler Jeep Dodge and directly across the highway from East Tenn Rent-Alls.

“Who knows,” said Becerra. “We’ll see where it goes and maybe we’ll have a big operation someday.”

Photos: Tommy Knisley

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