By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor
BOZEMAN – Alba and Kurt Jeffries have been selling authentic Mexican food in the Bozeman area for nearly a decade. When their Main Street restaurant La Tinga shuttered its doors last November, downtown Bozeman lost a beloved institution.
But La Tinga is still a thriving business on the west side of town on Baxter Lane.
The Jeffries were married on Valentine’s Day 2003 in El Paso, Texas where Alba was contracted by a company from Juarez, Mexico to do payroll and Kurt was finishing his social work degree at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“When we were first going out we would [eat] out a lot,” said Kurt, a Butte native who spent 20 years in Bozeman before moving to El Paso. “But one day I came home from class and the house was full of a delicious smell.” It turned out to be Tinga-style pork that Alba was cooking.
“I’d never heard of it,” he said. “I took one bite and said this is the foundation for a successful business in Bozeman.”
In May 2005 they moved to Belgrade and began selling breakfast burritos out of a truck in the River Rock development. After a brief stint selling tacos in 2005 at the old Ice Garden in Four Corners, they moved to the Armory building in Bozeman.
Business took off at the Armory where they sold three tacos with beans and rice for $3.75. That endeavor lasted eight months until an opportunity on Bozeman’s downtown drag arose, sharing a space with Moo Casa ice cream parlor at 12 East Main.
They shared the space for about a year until the Jeffries bought out Moo Casa and La Tinga remained there for six years.
“I survived my first couple years of business because of [La Tinga],” said Katie Wing, owner of Main Street’s Loft Spa, on a recent lunch break. The Jeffries took a risk closing the downtown shop with its devoted following, but it seems to have paid off.
“The new location is better than expected,” Alba said. “Lots of people used to walk to the Main Street location, but they’re starting to make the drive out here.”
Spanish teacher Jan Krieger has been taking his Chief Joseph Middle School Spanish students to La Tinga since the days of the Armory and said it offers them a special cultural experience.
“My students have to interact and order completely in Spanish,” Krieger said. “It’s an incredibly rich and authentic experience for them. Having lived in Mexico for over five years myself, this is the real deal.”
Alba learned to cook by watching her older sister Antonieta and grandmother Hilaria in the kitchen while growing up in Mexico City. Antoineta spent a few years in Merida, in the southern part of the country where the Tinga pork is a tradition. Alba has a theory why Tinga is so appealing to the Bozeman market.
“The combination of tomatoes, pork, [it’s] a little spicy and sweet, it’s not extra hot. Anything you cook with pork is good,” she said.
Cooking Mexican food is one piece of the Tinga appeal, but the ingredients the Jeffries use may be just as important. They travel around Mexico every winter, trying new eateries and buying nuts, chiles, tamarindo, hibiscus and other dried foods.
Alba plans to go to Instituto Culinario de Mexico in Puebla this summer to learn more about “fancy” Mexican food. Having a commercial kitchen allows her to experiment and offer more menu items, like soups in the winter and salads in summer.
She’s also been able to make her own chile rellenos in the new space. In the past, Alba’s mother would ship them from Mexico, or her brother-in-law, who worked for Delta, would transport them in the planes.
“We had a chile relleno mafia,” she said with a smile. Downtown Bozeman may have lost a treasured eatery, but La Tinga uses its new space as an opportunity for growth.