Tamales are the specialty at Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen in Oconomowoc

Tamales are a specialty at Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen.
Tamales are a specialty at Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen.

While Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen is approaching its five-year mark in 2024, Linda Perez’s recipes go back generations in Mexico. In fact, Perez proudly proclaims this on the side of the truck with “Traditional Flavors Est. 1928.” That’s a nod to her 95-year-old mother, who lives with her today in Oconomowoc. She both inspired her daughter’s cooking and provided many of the recipes.

Perez grew up cooking alongside her mother and aunts in Mexico. She carried the traditions with her when she moved to Oconomowoc, where she and her husband of 30 years raised their three kids.

After 27 years working in the cosmetics industry, Perez decided to follow her passion for feeding others. She bought a food truck, then told her husband, Tom. He was fully on board, and four years ago she began selling her meals. If all the licensing goes through, by the end of this month they plan to operate the food truck in a space next to their Oconomowoc home at Wood St. and Summit Ave.

Currently, Bocadillos serves 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through March 30 at the Waukesha Winter Farmers Market inside Martha Merrell’s bookstore, 231 W. Main St., Waukesha.

There's no expiration on inspiration

It is never too late. Most women start their business when they’re young. For me my goal was to start my business before I was 50. That was not happening, so OK, let’s go for 55. I did it at 55. When I turn 60, I will celebrate my fifth anniversary. That’s next year.

Linda Perez and her husband Tom own Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen in Oconomowoc.
Linda Perez and her husband Tom own Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen in Oconomowoc.

When I came to the United States, I did not speak English. I feel like I’ve been breaking barriers all my life. It is not impossible. Follow your dreams. The first day I saw my trailer it was like a dream come true, and I hadn’t even opened yet.

Cooking for others comes naturally

I’ve been a cook all my life. I went to cooking school in Mexico when I was younger. I have a love for cooking because my mom had six sisters. She’s the baby, and my grandma died when my mom was six or seven. All the sisters would always be cooking and using my grandma’s recipes when they’d get together. I’m one of 12, number eight. My older sisters loved cooking. I also developed that because I wanted to be part of that.

Her dreams have deep roots

I immigrated to the United States from Mexico. I was raised in Jalisco, a big region for culinary. Food in Jalisco is some of the best in the world, along with Michoacan and Oaxaca. I was born in the state of Michoacan, but I didn’t grow up there. I was in Jalisco, which is about two hours away.

I always considered myself Jalisciense, a Tapatia girl, even though I was born in Michoacan and I still have family there. I love the food and the culinary traditions. I had two of the best parts of Mexico, and my heart is in both places. My roots are in Michoacan, but I grew up in Jalisco.

Linda Perez draws on the cuisine of Jalisco, where she grew up, for Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen.
Linda Perez draws on the cuisine of Jalisco, where she grew up, for Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen.

When I went to cooking school in Guadalajara, Jalisco, I started developing ideas, thinking maybe one day I’d open a restaurant. When I moved here, I came to Chicago and lived there for a while. That was not homey for me. It was too much. Then, we came to Wisconsin and I started working. This was the '80s, and I worked in a Mexican restaurant named Rudy’s. When I was working there, I got the idea again that a restaurant would be good. I knew it was difficult to start a restaurant. l focused on learning English. I didn’t know what I’d do, but cooking was always in my heart.

What cooking for others means to her

I want to give people what I experienced all my life. My husband is American, and he had no idea what Mexican food was until he married me. It was kind of sad for me to see people eat food and think it is Mexican. That’s when I started getting more serious. In my dreams, I wanted to have the opportunity to make good food, the kind I used to eat when I was in Mexico.

What's always on her menu

We make the tamales, and that’s what we’re well known for. We make chicken, pork, poblano, vegetable, poblano and cheese, and pineapple. Everywhere we go people look for our tamales. They’re not spicy, just a perfect bite.

Tamales are a specialty at Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen.
Tamales are a specialty at Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen.

If you’ve never eaten a tamal, whoever is selling it to you should have the ability to make you fall in love with them. Tamales are a big tradition in Mexico. Every state has their taste.

Feedback for her soul

I have a very young customer, a third grader who came with grandpa. I asked if she knew tamales. She said no, I’ve never eaten them. OK, do you normally like sweet or spicy? She said sweet. I gave her a pineapple tamal. This is on the house, just try it and tell me what you think. Grandpa ordered the pork and chicken tamales. I asked her, what do you think? She said she loved it. Can you tell people at school during show and tell? What will you say? She said ‘I feel like it is a hug.’

The most important cooking tip her mom gave her

It is very simple. My mom did everything by heart. She didn’t have measurements. I tried to measure the ingredients, but it didn’t work for me either. It is all by feel and taste.

My mom said, “If you’re not in a good mood, if you're not happy, don’t come cook in the kitchen. Don’t come next to me. Don’t even get into the kitchen.” When you’re cooking, you have to think of everybody who is going to eat your food. You have to have a happy heart. If you enjoy it, somebody else will too.

These are her menu mainstays

We are known for our chicken tacos. We have corn and flour tortillas, and we are introducing a blue corn tortilla. We also do fish tacos. It is not fried fish. We do boiled fish with our own recipe and seasonings. We serve that with cabbage and our own dressing we make, a guacamole, and jalapeno pepper.

We do Mexican rice in red, cilantro or white for special events. Every day we do the red rice. We order our tortillas from Chicago. We’ve wanted to make them fresh, but it is difficult to make them at the same time because people would be waiting longer. The ones we get from Chicago are like the ones that are close to the kind we have in Mexico. The flour ones are like the ones my dad used to make.

What you need to know about her food

In the food truck, I will not serve something that I did not make that day. I can’t serve something that is not going to be served like it would at my family’s table.

The possibility of peppers

It is amazing, in the '80s we used to bring a huge bag of dried peppers from Mexico, any kind. We’d bring them back on the plane because it was so hard to find anything here. Even if you went to Chicago it was hard to find them. Whoever would go to Mexico, we’d say bring me a bag of guajillo, arbol, ancho, even sea salt. My sister would come visit, we’d say bring corn husks.

Everything is available in Milwaukee now. I love to go to the Mexican stores in Milwaukee, El Rey, Cermak, but even Restaurant Depot has a lot of peppers! I couldn’t believe it.

Her winter weather favorite

Mexican hot chocolate. We serve that at the Waukesha farmers market. We do the Mexican canela, we put some brown sugar, maybe one clove, and our Chocolate Abuelita, a cacao from the state of Oaxaca actually. We simmer and mix it with either almond milk or regular cow milk. Chocolate Abuelita, there is no other chocolate like it.

We are also introducing a champurrado, a hot drink that usually is a companion of any tostada or tamale…. Nice cornmeal simmered with Mexican cinnamon to the point of looking soupy thick and you mix with Chocolate Abuelita, water and milk. You stir until it gets thick, gravy style, and then you sip it in your favorite cup. That’s what I drink Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with a tamal.

The kitchen tools she can't live without

I always have to buy two or three of the same. Why? Because I have two daughters. I have three manual tortilla makers. I have to have those to make tortillas fresh. I make them for breakfast. I have to have my molcajete. My mom she’s 95 and lives with us. She would not eat the same if she didn’t have salsa martajada de molcajete.

Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email clewis@journalsentinel.com.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bocadillos Mexican Mobile Kitchen features tamales, Jalisco flavors