Vegas native make sure soul stays in food at Mario’s

A lot of local business owners give back to the community. It’ s hard not to when you the community is your customer base.

But Mario Berlanga, owner of Mario’s West Side Market, really walks the walk and talks the talk.

How so?

He adopted two children, now 18, who played on the Little League baseball team he sponsored more than a decade ago after hearing how their parents abandoned them; and, of the 38 employees who work for him, 32 are from the immediate West Side, many live within walking distance of the market.

Flanked by a McDonald’s, a Jack in the Box, a Dollar General and a soon-to-open Pollo Loco, Mario’s West Side Market is an independent operator in a sea of franchises, located on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lake Mead boulevards.

It’s the only place in that area offering a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and home-cooked meals in a part of town where processed foods and supersized drinks are commonplace. In short, Mario’s is the “Cheers” version of a store and restaurant: Everybody knows just about everybody by name, including Berlanga, who grew up in the Marble Manor and Casa Rosa subsidized housing projects just blocks away.

As it turns out, it was Berlanga’s next-door neighbor at Casa Rosa, an outgoing elderly black woman by the name of Ida Jackson, who taught him and his 10 brothers and sisters how to prepare dozens of dishes from the Deep South, some of which you can now be found in Mario’s delicatessen, from the Peach Cobbler to the smothered pork chops to the Ox Tail soup.

Indeed, it was Ida’s recipes — along with her wisdom — that ended up having a lasting effect on Berlanga’s life, serving as quite the contrast from the tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas that his family was accustomed to eating, his mother being from Laredo, Texas; his father a few hours south of the border, in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.

Berlanga as a teen worked alongside Ida in her kitchen at Casa Rosa, which has since been torn down. But her recipes keep on living, along with the impression she left on Berlanga. When the flour and cheese would come in bulk, courtesy of the a food stamp program, Ida taught Berlanga how to quickly scan the back of flour for cake recipes.

As for the cheese, well, it could be added to just about anything, Berlanga quickly discovered.

“We used to call them ‘commodities,’ ” said Berlanga, 52, whose birth name was actually Maurilio only nobody could pronounce it in grade school and so it became “Mario” by default.

A 1979 graduate of Rancho High School, Berlanga now wheels and deals in commodities, many shipped in from places like Louisiana and Mississippi — Cajun-style seasoning, corn meal batter for the fried catfish or an array of Soul D’Licious spices, whose stickers adorn the front door of his store.

Question: Soul food. A lot of people know what it is, a lot of people have at least heard about it. But there might be a lot of people who’ve never had it. If they were looking at it point blank, what is soul food?

Answer: It’s basically a type of food that’s popular in the South. About 90 percent of my customers are black and they either lived in the South or their parents lived in the South. Or their grand parents lived in the South. They came here from Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, places like that. Their grandparents raised them on it, taught them about it, passed down recipes, that sort of stuff.

Question: But what is it? I mean, specifically?

Answer: Oh, it’s a lot of greens, a lot of yams, lima beans, gumbo soup, ox tail, hot links, chitlins, which is part of the hog’s stomach. The chitterlins, we clean them, boil them, then add our special seasoning. People love them here.

Question: Really? Part of the pig’s stomach?

Answer: Oh, yeah. Any part of the pig is really popular, believe it or not. You can’t get a whole pig in any ol’ grocery store or from a chain store. That’s why we have so many customers that keep coming back. We’ve got pig lips, pig snout, pig’s feet. any part of the pig. Eating this stuff is a part of a tradition, it’s what they know. It’s what they grew up on. A lot of them grew up poor, so they ate the entire animal so as not to go hungry. Not everything is a T-bone steak. Ox tail soup is popular, too. Same with smoked turkey neck. Just come to us. We’re going to have what you can’t get at any major grocery store. You can’t walk up to a delicatessen in one of the major supermarkets and ask for pig’s feet or pig snout. It’s just not going to happen. But the parts aren’t just eaten always. They’re added into the mix, like a spice. You can boil the stuff and add it to greens or soup, depending on what you’re cooking or preparing.

Question: So soul food is anything you can’t get at any major supermarket and it’s kind of off the wall stuff, right?

Answer: Kenyada (Fitzgerald Sr.), one of my cooks here … always says, “Soul food is something that comes from the heart, it comes from the soul. So, I guess that’s what soul food is, too. It’s got soul.

Question: So is your catfish prepared from the heart and the soul? The T-shirts that your cooks wear say Mario’s West Side Market has “the best fried catfish in town.” Why is it the best? What’s your secret?

Answer: Well, I don’t want to give away the secret, kinda like Colonel Sanders with KFC, ya know? Or Bush’s Baked Beans, country style. You know, that commercial where the dog is talking to the guy, and the guy keeps saying, “It’s a secret family recipe?’ We try to keep everything kinda secret, too, but it’s definitely in the seasoning we use. It’s a special cornmeal. It comes from Louisiana.

Question: So fried catfish is considered a soul food?

Answer: It better be, if it’s not. It’s the best in town. The catfish tails are huge, too. I’ve got people asking me all the time, “Are there any tails left?” Mostly it’s the old folks who grew up on catfish. They used to fish for it in ponds and lakes, and they’d eat it growing up. They’d eat what they caught, you know? Now they get it here. There’s no place you’re going to catch a catfish out here. When we slice the catfish up on the meat saw, it ends up looking like a horseshoe. All the parts, I mean. But it’s the cornmeal it’s fried with, that’s what makes it special. It’s a special kind. I’m not a big fan of beer batter. That’s what the seafood chains mostly fry it with: beer batter.”

Question: So the delicatessen is the big part of your success as a market?

Answer: I’d say 60 percent of our money and sales is due to the delicatessen. I added it when I bought the place in 1997. I bought it from a guy named Jimmy Banks. I pretty much kept all the products the same and didn’t change a thing. Just the name. Replaced “Jimmy’s” with “Mario’s,” then added the delicatessen and the Western Union. People can come here and pay their utilities, then walk out the door with some good hot food.

Question: What did you do before you took over this place?

Answer: I worked as a boxboy out of high school for Vegas Village. It was a chain store. There were about five of them. It was kind of like a Wal-Mart, only smaller. It had a department store and a grocery store, all in one. Just a lot smaller. They’re not around anymore. Then after that I opened up my own store called “Mario’s” but it wasn’t as big as this. Then I got this. It was a dream come true. I always thought that I’d want to run my own store, and here I am doing it. I tell the children all the time, I tell them, “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something or that you can’t achieve your dreams or goals. You can if you try. It doesn’t matter where you come from.”

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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