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Best Mexican Food North of the Rio Grande

There's a little town in eastern Iowa, with a population barely topping the 2,000 mark, that has the most authentic Mexican food you'll find anywhere north of the Rio Grande River.

Yes, that's a big-time statement. No, I haven't tried every Mexican restaurant in the 48 contiguous states, much less Alaska and Canada. Yes, I'm sure, there are places in Texas that will contest that. Even so, I can't imagine anywhere will top what's available in Columbus Junction.

Photo outside Santa Ana Restaurant and Bakery.
If you want authentic Mexican food, head to Santa Ana in Columbus Junction.**

Columbus Junction is roughly 35 miles straight south of Iowa City. Thirty-nine percent of its population is Hispanic.

Many of them came to the area decades ago to work in the fields growing "Muscatine melons." Many more came to the community after the more recent opening of a nearby meat packing plant.

Taking a drive down Main Street with a great deal of storefront signage written in Spanish, it feels a bit like you've been transported to one of those small towns in the far southwest corner of the country.

There are at least three or four Mexican restaurants within a block of each other along the street.

Knowing nothing about any of them, my friend and I stood in the middle of the street, there’s not a lot of traffic in downtown Columbus Junction, surveyed our choices up and down the block and made the logical choice, the restaurant that said it was also a bakery. Because hey, sweets.

We arrived at Santa Ana Bakery around 2 p.m., missing the lunch rush so the only other person in the place was the owner, a senior Hispanic gentleman. A women's Olympic soccer game was playing on the old television, situated on a shelf in the back corner, turned to a Spanish-speaking channel.

Photo inside Mexican restaurant and bakery.
Inside Santa Ana with it's menu on the baked walls and those delicious baked goods in the case.**

The first thing you need to know about Santa Ana Bakery is there aren't any menus, at least that we could see. The menu, as such, was painted on the back wall of the restaurant and I'm sure hasn't changed in 20 or 30 years. Oh, and there are no prices listed because, after all, they would have changed considerably since that wall was painted.

Not quite sure what to do at this point, I took the easy way out and chose a chimichanga. My friend ordered the torta. We grabbed a couple of drinks out of a nearby cooler and as I tried to pay the bill, the owner waved me off, telling us to go have a seat.

Sitting there, in this small café, you are transported to Mexico. All of the old black and white photos crowded onto the wall are, I assume, of Mexican celebrities, though I have to admit I have no idea who any of them are. The signage is in Spanish and most of the various knickknacks for sale behind the counter have a Mexican origin of one kind or the other.

Understanding absolutely no Spanish, I really wished Darling Daughter was with me. She’s taken high school and college Spanish and could offer us a clue about what those signs were telling us. But, don’t worry, whatever they say, you don’t need to understand them to order and enjoy a great meal.

Photo of Mexican food on table inside restaurant.
Proof. Here's the proof our meals were nearly the size of our plates, and they tasted great! **

Soon enough the owner popped out of the back with food that was nearly the size of our plates. They were, truly, ginormous. And they tasted as good as they looked.

Along with our orders he brought a choice of five different sauces, all handmade by him. They went from a green version that was on the hot side, to a reddish brown one that was somewhere on the edge of inferno. We tasted all five, and all five were great, but opted to stay with that green one. I know, I’m a wimp. But I really do like hot stuff, really.

My chimichanga was the size of a small brick, deep fat fried through and through and stuffed to the max. If I had thought ahead I might have brought a cooler along but, unable to take any leftovers home, I powered through and completed the entire meal. I mean, you wouldn’t me to waste that, would you?

My friend was just as enamored with her torta though showed more restraint than I, leaving some of the enormous offering behind to make room for dessert.

Speaking of dessert, the display case was literally packed with choices, each looking even better than the one next to it. The owner said the macaroons were a popular option so who am I to argue with the people’s choice?

Photo of Mexican baked goods.
My macaroon on the left. Don't know what the piece on right is but both tasted great.

The macaroon was nearly the size of a small muffin and neither of us knows what it was my friend purchased but it was equally delicious. I’ll post the photo here, so drop me a note if you recognize what it is.

And two more macaroons may or may not have been purchased for the ride home.

Oh, and I mentioned above,there are no prices anywhere. After we picked up the first of our desserts, the owner simply said, “Give me 25 dollars.” That’s right, all of that food for just $25. The two additional macaroons were just $1.50.

It’s going to be very difficult for me to eat Mexican food anywhere else again. I’m thinking I may be making up excuses to be in the Columbus Junction area again in the future, even if it is an hour away.

**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask that you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address or a link back to this page.


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