The Taqueria at the End of the World: At the Top of Alaska, Try the Tamales

On the edge of the Arctic Circle, the hottest thing is tacos and tamales.

Cruz's Mexican Grill is the first taqueria owned by actual Latinos in America's northernmost settlement, a small town once known as Barrow, Alaska. The locals changed the name to Utqiagvik ("Oot-KAH-gr-vik") by a margin of six votes a few years ago. There is no taqueria closer to the North Pole.

Liliana Peñuelas, who was born in Cuba, and Cruz Peñuelas, who was born in Mexico, could not be farther from where they started. They met in Utqiagvik and dreamed of opening an authentic Mexican restaurant to serve the food they grew up eating.

Cruz's Mexican Grill
Cruz and Liliana Peñuelas are pictured outside Cruz's Mexican Grill in Utqiagvik, Alaska, where they serve tacos and enchiladas to native people who live inside the Artic Circle. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

The husband-and-wife team applied for a restaurant permit in 2014. Since the settlement has been home to indigenous people for more than 1,500 years, they first needed permission from the tribal council, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

It wasn't an easy decision. Cruz's Mexican Grill was not the first taco spot to open in Utqiagvik. Pepe's North of the Border had served the community since 1978; it wasn't clear that the tiny community needed a second taco Renaissance.

The Peñuelas made a distinction the council found persuasive. While Pepe's served Tex-Mex food, Cruz and Liliana would embrace authentic Mexican gastronomy, especially dishes traditional to the state of Sinaloa. (Pepe's was later consumed by fire, an all too common occurrence in the Arctic region.)

Cruz's Mexican Grill 2
A bowl of pozole sits on a table at Cruz's Mexican Grill in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

Today Cruz's Mexican Grill serves 18 dishes, from enchiladas and nachos to fajitas and tamales.

Cuban-born Liliana left the island in 1966 for Puerto Rico. Joining a friend who worked at Utqiagvik's only hospital, she arrived in 1990 and made this remote outpost her home.

She met Cruz in Utqiagvik, long after his 1985 migration from his native Mexico to California, and then years later to Alaska.

Cruz's Mexican Grill 3
Cruz's Mexican Grill is carry-out only and shares space with a bakery. Both have remained open during the Covid-19 pandemic, with taxicabs providing delivery service. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

The couple were delighted by how the Iñupiaq community embraced their cuisine. "They eat way more spice than Mexicans," Cruz tells Zenger News, explaining how the local community tries everything on the menu. "They prefer Jarritos, a Mexican brand of sodas, over American drinks."

Tourists visiting the Iñupiaq Heritage Center or the Gateway to the Arctic, a whalebone arch that celebrates Utqiagvik's tradition of subsistence whaling, have stopped by the taqueria for years with the curious look of someone who just spotted a KFC in Beijing.

The deadly coronavirus had other ideas in 2020.

Cruz's Mexican Grill 4
"Three enchiladas verde with rice and beans" costs $10 on special at Cruz's Mexican Grill. A plate of three tacos usually costs $25.00. Prices are generally higher for everything in northern Alaska, where supplies have to be flown in at great cost. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

"Hundreds of tourists and students visit Utqiagvik every year. But this year they couldn't come because of COVID-19," Cruz says.

COVID-19 is making a big mark on small settlements. Utqiagvik and seven smaller villages make up Alaska's North Slope Borough, an area bigger than Utah. It has seen 115 cases, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reports released on September 24. At least 89 of them are in Utqiagvik, where residents are living under a "hunker down" order until Oct. 5.

Seven hundred miles south in Anchorage, María Elena Ball wonders if her own restaurant will see the end of COVID-19. "Mexico in Alaska" is delivery-only for now, and loyal regular customers are helping her keep going.

Cruz's Mexican Grill 5
An employee of Liliana's Fresh Bakes in Utqiagvik, Alaska shows off a pair of funnel cakes. The bakery shares shop space with Cruz's Mexican Grill. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

The pandemic reminds Alaskans how isolated they are, she tells Zenger. "People went crazy and emptied the stores" when deaths began to mount all over the world, says María Elena. "There was no flour, and I had trouble buying rice and beans."

"Later, the stores rationed some goods: one could buy just one 25-pound bag of rice per person." Stores suggested she get friends to buy things for her.

The challenges pile up as Anchorage marks its 4,000th case of COVID-19.

"Produce did not arrive this week because ships had trouble with the storms," María Elena says. "We usually order goods one week in advance. If produce does not arrive within a week, I am in trouble."

Cruz's Mexican Grill 6
Cruz's Mexican Grill in Utqiagvik, Alaska is pictured after a snowstorm buried much of the building, in an undated photograph. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

More than 50,000 Latinos lived in Alaska last year, about 10 times as many as the entire population of Utqiagvik, according to U.S. Census estimates.

When she arrived in Alaska in 1968, "there were not even 10 Hispanic families in Anchorage," she says. And when she opened her restaurant in 1972, Alaskans hardly knew anything about authentic Mexican cooking.

"They just knew enchiladas," she says. But she introduced genuine Mexican specialties from Michoacán state, Mexico, where she was born—a 4,875-mile road trip to the south—including mole, the traditional Mexican sauce based on chocolate, nuts, spices, and peppers.

Because the right ingredients were scarce in Alaska, María Elena's mother sent her dried peppers and spices from San Antonio, Texas.

Cruz's Mexican Grill 7
The restaurant Mexico in Alaska in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2017. Courtesy of Gabriela Olmos

She says being able to get locally made tortillas back then "was a huge advantage. We began making simple things: tacos, quesadillas, and burritos."

More elaborate dishes came later when grocery stores added Hispanic goods to their ethnic sections.

Liliana and Cruz can't go to a Fred Myer or Walmart for serrano and habanero peppers. Anywhere in the "lower 48," these ingredients are easy to get. But bringing anything to their doorstep is a challenge.

Utqiagvik is 500 miles from Fairbanks, the largest town in central Alaska. The Dalton Highway ends at Prudhoe Bay, more than 200 miles to the southeast.

"All our supplies come from abroad," Cruz says. "We work with a local company that brings meat and other ingredients. Also, when I travel to Anchorage or Mexico, I buy what I need."

Cruz's Mexican Grill 8
A snowed-over street in Utqiagvik, Alaska is pictured after in an undated photograph. Courtesy of Cruz Peñuelas

The pandemic has made resupplying even more difficult. Freight may be delayed by more than a month, which means food can go bad before it arrives.

Cruz pays steep prices for fresh produce at the local grocery, but it's better than waiting for freight. "Especially in the winter, produce would arrive frozen, and it would not work," says Cruz.

The Beaufort Sea begins to freeze by mid-October, and the taqueria at the end of the world stays open. When temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero, Cruz partners with local taxis for delivery service.

Even during the 24-hour-long night, when "we recognize people by the color of their parkas," Utqiagvik's three cab companies carry tacos to customers. "People here," Cruz said, "do not make excuses."

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.