La Villa Mexican Grill in Valrico gives its patrons a taste of authentic Mexican food. This small family-owned and operated place just off Lithia-Pinecrest Rd. features a delightful variety of Mexican food choices prepared fresh daily.
Owner, manager, and server, Estella Villegas and her husband Jose Juan Pingarron, chef, originally opened a small primarily take-out place in June 2013 in Riverview. After a few years, Estella and Juan achieved their dream of a small, intimate family restaurant by moving La Villa Mexican Grill to its current location at 4377 Lynx Paw Trail, in the River Hills Plaza, Valrico.
“When we started, we only had four tables and four people,” Juan says, referring to his wife and himself and their two sons who helped when not attending school. He had worked as a bus boy, bartender, and manager, but the turning point in his life was venturing out in his own business and following his life-long passion of cooking.
Juan spent 25 years in Mexico City working in what is known as “the market,” where you can buy everything from shoes to jewelry, and eateries abound. He said he now “cooks to honor the memories of all the people in ‘the market’ who came from the north, south, east and west,” which let him experience all styles of Mexican cooking.
But it is primarily his mother he credits with teaching every one of her children how to cook when they were 12 years old. “When I was very young, I changed her recipes around, and played with flavors.” As an adult in the mid-nineties, living in Dallas, Texas, Juan found “Tex-Mex” food to be very dissimilar from genuine Mexican –“Not like my mom made.”
I enjoyed the Mole Enchiladas. These chicken enchiladas, enhanced with Juan’s special mole sauce that he makes “the way my mother did,” include crumbled queso fresco, sour cream, and onion on a bed of yellow rice. The sour cream, Crema Mexicana, is imported from a friend in Mexico because it has less additives and preservatives. The refried beans were flavored to perfection with a variety of spices and were the best beans I’ve ever tasted. Another key family tradition – daily trips to the produce market-ensures their simple, homestyle cooking includes the freshest food available.
My husband was delighted with his order of Arachera, a fine seasoned skirt steak on a bed of grilled onion, with corn tortillas. He also loved the flavorful Chiles Rellenos, Poblano peppers stuffed with fresco cheese, battered in egg, deep fried, topped with red sauce and served with rice and black beans. We each finished our meal with Estella’s flan, with just the right amount of sweet and creamy for my palate. Other dessert choices include Cancun Banana, Churros, or Bunuelo (Mexican fritters).
Portions are generous and the family is sincere in their efforts to provide each customer wonderful service. We met their son Alberto, their niece, Kristy, and nephews, Michael and Luis.
“Make sure to include our other son, Fernando, who is off this evening,” Juan added. He is a gentleman surrounded by his own family, that help serve other families with pride.
This small family-run restaurant was “farm to table” before that term was popular. They avoid canned and frozen foods and buy fresh beans, arriving hours ahead of time to boil the beans themselves. Juan mentioned they do not offer ground beef because it lacks the quality they desire in presenting healthy, fresh, and genuine Mexican food.
One of Juan’s all-time favorite cooking shows is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (appearing on the Food Network). Juan shared his next big dream. He wants the folks representing that show to visit him, his wife and family for dinner at La Villa Mexican Grill.
I recommend you visit this gem while it is still our unique local venue. They have recently expanded, doubling the amount of dining tables and serving space in their current location. La Villa Mexican Grill is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call ahead (813) 324-8839 for pick-up options or to make a reservation, as outside dining areas are limited. More about this special place appears on Facebook at La Villa River Hills.
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