By Chantelle Pence
Emma’s Food of the Southwest sprang up along Main Street in Alamosa in 2017, but the restaurant’s roots run deep and can be traced back to one of the first families to settle in the San Luis Valley. The original Emma—Emma Espinoza—began serving burgers and red chili as a side business to the El Patio Inn, a historic bar in San Luis, sometime around 1954.
She stayed consistent with her recipes, and eventually expanded to create Emma’s Hacienda, a successful establishment that attracted loyal customers for over 60 years. Emma’s granddaughter, Mona Russo, carries on the family tradition by using the same authentic Southwest recipes she inherited from her grandmother and mother. She even uses some of the same pots and pans. “I learned so many things from my family…how to be and not to be.”
Emma Espinoza was known for her style. She wore beautiful dresses and high heels well into old age. “Grandma made people feel special,” Mona said. “She was a stickler, though.” Everything had to be right. “She would tear a sopapilla apart and if it was too chewy it was unacceptable.” Mona stands on the solid work ethic she learned from the family business and offers the same quality food and service to the new generation of Emma’s customers. “I always give it back to Grandma,” she says, “I don’t take credit.”
Mona’s son, Anthony, is now the face of Emma’s. He runs the front of the house while Mona cooks and manages the back. It’s mostly a two-person operation, though they hire extra help as needed. Customers are greeted by Anthony’s beaming smile and welcoming demeanor. Upbeat music is usually playing in the background, at a volume that makes it feel like a party. The simple menu is consistent and satisfying, with red and green chilis being the central theme. After opening the new Emma’s, Mona was validated by an old-timer who remembered the taste of her grandma’s food. He took a bite and a certain look came to his face. “Wow!” he said. “This takes me back to that old restaurant.” The hard work of being an entrepreneur can take a toll. But moments like that are refreshing to Mona’s soul.
“I always wanted to inspire people,” Mona said. Growing up in San Luis, she sometimes felt looked down on by others. Reflecting on the past, she’s not sure how much of what she experienced was really happening and how much of it was stories she had inherited from her family, who surely did encounter certain prejudices. Mona moved to Miami for a time and raised her son there. “I felt free!” she said. The diversity and mixture of so many people expanded her experience and perspective. She returned to the San Luis Valley with a hope in her heart that she could inspire others to believe in themselves, and in life’s possibilities. Mona shared a favorite quote: No hay felicidad si no hay ilusiones. She went on to explain what it meant to her. “Happiness is having hopes and dreams.”
When asked about her current hopes and dreams, Mona admitted that the stress of running a business has been all-consuming.
When COVID hit, it was particularly stressful. She pushed herself to stay a step ahead, and immediately began doing research to see how other restaurants across the nation were coping. Emma’s began offering curbside service, and actually gained customers during that time. They also provided free offerings to essential workers as an act of community service. Emma’s stayed open through the worst of it and has gained the respect of many. “We didn’t close one day.”
Mona is more than a restaurateur. She is an author who sells her book at the counter, and a traveler who has a particular fondness for Spain. She is a visionary. “I wish there were five of me,” she said. “One to cook, one to clean, another to write, another to travel.” She is a bit weary and waiting for the next burst of inspiration. Surviving cancer several years ago prompted her on a journey of holistic health, and she began experimenting with making natural lotions for those going through radiation. She recounted the story of praying for healing to the Virgin of Hope while visiting the landmark in Spain. “My prayers were answered,” she said.
Like many people who leave the places where their roots run deep and return home again, Mona has found that she doesn’t fit in the San Luis Valley in quite the same way. She has changed, and is not content unless she is consistently growing and creating. There is no going back, but she has successfully carried her grandmother’s legacy forward. The new Emma’s restaurant is a jewel, and well worth the visit. The woman behind the scenes is truly inspiring.
Emma’s Food of the Southwest is at 924 Main Street in Alamosa, Colorado. Visit the Facebook page at: facebook.com/emmasfoodofthesw