Hecho con amor (Made With Love)

Written by Cassandra Castillo

Valdemar Ibarra and Carmen Torres prepare the grill and prep area for a customers order. The couple has cooked to order upon request since their restaurant’s inception in 2012. Wednesday April 19, 2023. (Photo by Cassandra Castillo)

Natives of Michoacan, Mexico, Carmen Torres and Valdemar Ibarra have been living their American Dream cooped up inside their small orange-painted restaurant nestled within the busy Amnicola Highway.

“All the people from Chattanooga, from Hixson, Redbank, Dunlap, Dayton who are all customers, many of them friends because we were eager to have family, eager to have friends, so we have many friendships now,” Ibarra said. 

He was a businessman from his days in Mexico, but left that behind when he arrived in the U.S. as an immigrant in 1992. Ibarra began working in California but found no steady income, so he moved to the Chattanooga area, where his cousin resided, not long after. 

Ibarra began with manual labor within the granite industry. Despite earning a steady paycheck,  that is not where his passion lied. He was eager to begin a business where he could execute what he learned at age five, and that was how to cook authentic Michoacan-style carnitas. 

His wife, Torres, has been by his side since their marriage in 2002. Ibarra said they wake up together, go to work together, and return home together. The pair are the sole owners and employees of the restaurant.

They opened their one and only location, Carnitas Carmelitas, on Amnicola Highway in 2012 and have been stationed there since, despite living 40 minutes away. 

“Our business is very very small, but its revenue is like the biggest restaurant in Chattanooga because our services are very competitive and people prefer us,” Ibarra said. “When the pandemic began, many businesses closed because their sales decreased but ours went up by double.”

When they began, Ibarra initially thought he would be catering to the Hispanic community; he never expected that 80 percent of his clients would be English speakers. 

“In the beginning, it was hard because I did not speak not even half a word of English,” Torres said. “Many Americans used to come in and I did not know anything they were saying; even now, I only understand them when they [talk about] the food. I was even nervous to pick up the phone, but I understand the food they order, I place their orders, and I deliver their food, I assume, correctly.”

There is a connection when it comes to trying an authentic meal and seeing the reaction on people’s faces when they get a taste of their specialty carnitas, birria, or buche in a taco, burrito or torta accompanied by rice and beans. 

Ibarra allows newcomers to try it before they sit and dine. He takes pride in offering low priced meals for a hefty serving of what they ordered. He said he wants people to leave his restaurant content, and with full bellies. 

They have grown their clientele over the years — even throughout the pandemic.

“After the pandemic, many businesses raised their prices,” Ibarra said. “We were [nearly] forced to raise our prices because we did not want to. I’m a person that does not like to sell expensive [items].”

They recall a health inspector checking in after lockdown, telling them to think about raising their prices because they would not last long in comparison to the other businesses. 

Ibarra is there to create an authentic experience for the customer, he is not simply there to take their money. With loaded burritos, tacos and more, many of the customers that walk out of their door eventually come back for more. 

“My system is that when someone new comes in, and they don’t like my food, they get their money back,” he said. “There aren’t many homeless who walk by, but the few that do, I always offer them food for free, and I tell them that whenever they need [food] they can come [back].”

His regulars include officers, firefighters or other emergency responders, even after they retire. 

“At lunch time, fire trucks invade our lot,” Ibarra said. “Ambulances or emergency vehicles come in groups; sometimes I get calls from friends [that drive by] asking ‘Hey what’s wrong?’ I say ‘No nothing’s wrong, they’re just eating.’ They came to eat.”

Before they grew accustomed to the frequent ring of the door bell, it was hard for them to get their business going even before they opened. They struggled to get their permits and proper documentation; Ibarra said they had to get seven permits in order to officially open their restaurant.

“The process was really hard [mainly] the documentation; it’s all in English and [through] American offices.”

After the restaurant was established, the couple worked from sunrise to sunset. 

Ibarra wraps a chicken burrito for a frequent customer during lunchtime. The couple has cook to order upon request since their restaurant’s inception in 2012. Wednesday April 19, 2023. (Photo by Cassandra Castillo)

“We were wishful, and when someone’s wishful they wake up early in the morning to be at the business, and we were like that,” Ibarra said. “We worked about six to eight years in a cycle of 24 hour work days because we would open at 6am and close at 10pm everyday — even when we went home we would make plans for the business.”

They began growing tired, but not because they did not have the same desire as when they started but because Ibarra opened yet another business. This time dealing with electronic appliances; he did this for two years and after selling the business they decided to decrease the number of hours worked in order to spend quality time with one another, and their son. 

The pair adopted a nine year old son, Miguel Antonio, two years ago. After decades of marriage, and their unfruitful desire of starting a family, they decided to adopt.

“Life denied us expanding our family; we have been married 21 years and I often say it as a joke but I’m serious when I say I dream of an enormous family — 11, 12, 15 children or however many God wanted to grant us, but he didn’t want to give us any,” Ibarra said. 

Sitting on the sofa in their comfortable Cleveland home, the couple looked at their 11-year-old son, and broke the news that he is going to be an older brother. 

With tears in her eyes, Torres said that her four-month pregnancy has been “like a dream.”

“Sometimes I still ask [myself] ‘Is this happening?’” she questioned. 

For now, their priority is the pregnancy. 

Torres said they worked for 12 consecutive years, without breaks, but now is the time to take a step back. As of now they work Monday through Saturday 10:30am to 3pm. They have managed well enough to close for four months after the baby’s arrival in order to nurture and take advantage of the miracle that has ensued. 

They hope for the best in their children’s lives, and do their best to make time for him. Miguel Antonio said he likes to cook, but is not fond of the thought of becoming a restaurant owner in his future. 

“[Miguel Antonio] frequently changes what he wants to be,” he said. “ Initially he wanted to be a police officer, then a pilot or a soccer player, but he’s only a child. If one day he accomplishes what he wants to be then he’ll succeed, if not, then there will always be something secure there.”

The couple do not have plans to expand as they once dreamed of, but they are comfortable with the space they have now in the location that it resides in. They welcome people just as they have since they opened, and hope to grow even more friendships with their customers. 

Cassandra Castillo spoke with Valdemar Ibarra about the recipe for his carnitas. The audio is transcribed in English below.

Ibarra: In my family, we are six siblings — all of us with an interest of learning [and] watching how to make carnitas. 

Castillo: That is the voice of Mr. Valdemar Ibarra. He tells us how the famous recipe fell into his hands at just five years old after his parents hired butchers who made carnitas to later sell. 

Ibarra: The men who were working never thought that my parent’s intentions were to steal the recipe, but they did take care. They asked for ingredients ‘bring [things] to make a smoothie with garlic, onion, [and] condiments. These men would watch my parents to [make sure] they did not see, but they never told the one who was four or five years old— [he] saw everything. And I saw how they made them, and I saw to the last detail because I was the one that was there on my own account, and I saw. [After] the four occasions, I told them ‘don’t pay anyone to make carnitas, you’re going to make them, and I’m going to tell you how.’ And they made them, and we made them, and since then. I learned by watching, by my own interest. 

Castillo: After getting married, Mrs. Carmen Torres had to learn without much help from her mother and began finding out by just watching others.

Torres: I went over to my mom and said ‘mom, can you teach me how to make the tamales’ and she said ‘Now, now you’re interested — no, just remember how to make them’ and she didn’t tell me how. Every time I went to visit [people’s] homes — and it’s what I tell my [son], I tell him, I observed what it had what it accommodated, I watch and everything just sticks. 

Castillo: The couple adds many more ingredients than just physical ones. They always advise their son to use the ingredients one cannot see at the dining table. 

Torres: The important [thing] is to have interest, and the desire to do it — it’s what [my son] says, ‘mom, what do you put in it?’ I say, first of all, love. I tell him. He says ‘why does is this so good?’ because we do it with love, I tell him we cook it, first of all, with drive, with love, and we do it with joy and everything because when you’re making something and you don’t want to make it, just don’t make it because it won’t taste good for you or for anyone

Castillo: This was Cassandra Castillo with Rising Rock Media, music by FreeGroove.

Meet the Storyteller

Cassandra Castillo is a junior Communication and Humanities major with a minor in Spanish at UT Chattanooga. As a multimedia journalist, she hopes to give a voice to the voiceless through visual and written storytelling around the world. Cassandra works as a videographer for Rising Rock Media, video editor for Mocs News and feature writer for the University Echo. For questions or collaboration with Cassandra, contact xmx829@mocs.utc.edu.

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