The best food is often hidden away in the corners of nondescript strip malls. These types of family-run multi-generational businesses must work hard to stay ahead of corporate outlets. They succeed by connecting with the community and by reflecting the values of their employees and customers, in contrast with bland chain stores that primarily serve to funnel profits to their remote corporate headquarters.
So it is that Ramirez Mexican Store and Restaurant can be found near an auto parts store and next to a nail salon in Tumwater. Signs in the window supporting local labor unions and tales of the many local school groups who have received numerous rounds of fundraising support are just one indication of how integrated Ramirez Mexican Store is in the community.
The moment you meet Maria Jimenez and her family, owners of the store and restaurant it is apparent how much they love their work, their family recipes, their customers, and their community. That might explain why they’ve had one of the most highly rated restaurants and stores in the area for more than ten years.
Maria is from Jalisco and her husband Jose Ramirez is from the neighboring state of Zacatecas in central Mexico. Starting this business was a longtime family dream for them. Jose was a hard worker, often having two jobs at the same time. Maria worked to support him in creating a family business they could own for themselves.
Over the years…the store has grown to encompass a whole south-of-the-border world
Family is part of the culture
What does Maria mean when she says “family business?” In addition to her husband, Maria’s three sons (Andres, Oscar, and Sergio), her mother, daughters-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, and three nephews all work together in the business. The definition has expanded so that Maria feels that all the employees in the business are family to them.
And it isn’t just the employees — it’s the neighborhood vibe with a stream of locals coming for a meal, or take-out, or some Mexican groceries. The way children can entertain themselves checking out shelves of exotic food while their parents enjoy a meal — or even a drink. Groups are welcome to hold celebrations and other events in the bar area. There’s a Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) sign in the front window of the store and Maria says they are proud to work with the labor union to provide food for many WFSE events. They’ve even been part of weddings — preparing food for as many as 500 guests.
Offering the flavors of a different world
Maria and Jose started with a small store in 2008. Over the next 12 years the store has grown to encompass a whole south-of-the-border world: dried chilies and spices, a range of produce with whole and prepared nopales cactus, imported canned and packaged goods, a drinks section with hard-to-find guava Jarritos, Mexican candy. A large refrigerated case is filled with containers of sauces, entrees, condiments, desserts made from scratch from Ramirez family recipes — mainly the mothers of Maria and Jose. In time, they added a tortilla factory to produce that traditional staple without which there is no authentic Mexican meal – fresh corn tortillas.
At the meat counter there are cuts familiar to anyone who’s traveled in Mexico or learned to love Mexican food, many of them seasoned with the flavors of Mexico and ready for grilling. Adventurous home cooks come to the store with printed recipes, looking to find some of the ingredients they need and often thrilled to discover they can find everything on their list at the Ramirez store.
Building on success
With the success of the store, the next step was to offer prepared food in a restaurant setting as well as catering. Like the store, the restaurant is a world in reach of your fork and spoon: six different varieties of soups, tacos with 11 filling options, burritos, bowls, enchiladas, tortas, seafood platters including mojarra frita (fried whole tilapia), salmon, and red snapper — and breakfast too.
In 2014, the family opened Ramirez To Go — yes, tucked away next to a service station on Olympia’s Westside — run by their son Sergio. The menu is shorter, but it’s the same delicious food.
After they added a bar to the Tumwater location in 2018, Maria began referring to seating areas as Section A for the store portion which is a little quieter and more private, Section B for the restaurant portion which has more space and natural light from the windows, and Section C for the bar portion where groups sometimes like to throw birthday parties and celebration events. On Friday nights you might encounter a happy crowd of locals in for the karaoke. .
Sharing the love
Maria’s eyes light up when she describes two more specialties of the Mexican table: tamales and beans. Anyone who has experienced the tradition of a family getting together to make tamales during the Christmas holiday season knows this is a huge labor of love. Even though the store makes its own masa, it is less labor intensive for a restaurant kitchen like theirs to structure operations to produce large batches of tamales. Many customers appreciate that they can buy authentic, traditional made-from-scratch tamales by the dozen from the Ramirez Store when they aren’t able to turn their home kitchen into a full fledged tamale factory. Tamales are available year-round, but thousands upon thousands are sold from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, so pre-ordering is wise..
As for the beans, many customers beg Maria for her recipe (which she graciously shares on occasion), but few are able to master the process. They come back to her to say “they still didn’t taste as good as yours.” Maria replies with a wink and a smile “maybe my husband puts extra love into our version.” .
When asked what is her favorite thing about working together with so many family members Maria enthusiastically replies “that I have them all with me and we are growing together.” She then follows up with “if I had to choose all over I would do it again in a heartbeat, we really appreciate our customers and really enjoy serving our community”.
Ramirez Mexican Store 5105 Capitol Blvd. SW #C, Tumwater, WA 98501
Ramirez To Go 2400 Harrison Ave SW Olympia, WA 98501
The author grew up in the Pacific NW — except for a stint in Southern California where he learned to love authentic Mexican food and travels to other far flung parts of the world.