Arrow-right Camera


Woman Hopes Others Will See What’s Cookin’

Maria Zamora lost one restaurant to looters and rioters and two to bulldozers.

But the obscurity that threatens her latest establishment is the hardest for her to swallow.

“This one is a problem,” she says, her worried eyes resting on the bright serape-covered dining tables in Coeur d’Alene’s Casa Maria. “We’re just making it now.”

Selling her cooking never has before been difficult, she says. Spices imported from Mexico and ground by hand in volcanic stone bowls. Chiles picked fresh and roasted. Beans simmered without oil or lard in clay pots. Pork cooked in a copper pot the size of a washtub.

“The Indians make food by hand. That’s how I do it,” Maria says as if she has no choice.

She learned in Mexico City at a school that hired Mexican Indians from surrounding villages for authentic cooking. Years later in Los Angeles, Maria opened a restaurant, Papacitos, in Marina del Rey.

A freeway project eventually buried Papacitos, but Maria’s compensation and a good real estate deal helped her buy another restaurant in Huntington Park. The restaurant seated 250 people and was typically full, she says.

“Latin people eat well and spend money,” she says with a wistful smile.

Divorced and supporting a son in college and two daughters in private school, Maria sold real estate the few hours of the day she wasn’t cooking.

But 13 years after she opened, her restaurant was demolished to make way for a shopping center. Maria moved on to east Los Angeles where she owned a popular restaurant and bar for seven years - until the 1991 riots.

“One night, they stole everything inside, then burned it,” she says, shaking her head sorrowfully.

Firefighters carried Maria from her burning restaurant in a yellow body bag to protect her from rioters. She traveled the world the next four years looking for a safe place as far from Los Angeles as she could get.

Her daughter, Jacqueline Melendreras, left California for the Northwest the day after the riots. She and her family toured the region until they hit Coeur d’Alene.

The area offered everything but cultural diversity and Maria’s cooking. Jacqueline was willing to trade the first for Coeur d’Alene’s beauty and safety, but not the second.

She leased the tiny space on the corner of 14th Street and Sherman Avenue, named it Casa Maria for her mother, then told Maria she had to come - the restaurant was opening in a month.

The restaurant is so small - seven tables - that Maria thought it was the waiting area. Still, she moved in her stone bowls, copper pots and handmade ceramic plates that weigh a few pounds each. She ground steak for albondigas soup and roasted tomatillos, peppers and garlic for salsas.

Then she waited for the tables to fill as they always had in the past. But few people came.

“It’s been a struggle,” Jacqueline says with a sigh. She’s Maria’s manager, bookkeeper, waitress, cheerleader. “We’re not known yet. I have faith in our quality. We’ll make it if people try us.”

Lake Disneyland

Have you seen Snow White’s cottage magnified 100 times on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s shore? The Fantasyland home is so big, it dwarfs all of the neighbors’ dream homes. Check out Loffs Bay and let me know if you see Happy, Sneezy or Grumpy on the private beach.

Or cruise by the southern end of Mica Bay to see a New England style estate right out of “On Golden Pond.” The folks who own this house even have bushes in the shape of deer grazing on their grounds.

Where have you seen eye-popping lake houses in North Idaho? Drool out the details for Cynthia Taggart, “Close to Home,” 608 Northwest Blvd., Suite 200, Coeur d’Alene 83814; fax to 765-7149; or call 765-7128.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo