LET’S FACE IT: Mexican food has been Americanized more than any other international cuisine, becoming, more often than not, a Tex-Mex mash-up of dishes that aren’t indigenous to Mexico. Which isn’t to say that what most Americans know as “Mexican” isn’t delicious, because it is.
The problem is what gets lost in translation when the opportunity for true cultural exchange falls by the wayside. At Yeyo’s Mexican Grill in Bentonville’s ever-developing 8th Street Market, however, nothing is ever lost in translation.
You may recognize the name Yeyo’s from the food truck that’s been keeping downtown Bentonville denizens in barbacoa street tacos and milanesa since 2013. If you frequent the Bentonville Farmer’s Market, you’ll also recognize the name behind Yeyo’s: the Rios family of Rios Family Farm in Little Flock.
Here’s the backstory: The Rioses relocated to Northwest Arkansas in 2006 from California, making the move for the usual reason folks migrate here: a better quality of life. The proceeds from one home sale in California were enough to buy five homes for the seven siblings and their parents in Northwest Arkansas.
After the move, each of the siblings found work in their respective fields, but Sundays were reserved for pitching in at the family farm. When the downtown Bentonville food scene began to take off, the Rios clan sensed that there was an appetite there for the authentic Mexican cuisine that was an integral part of their family culture. The food truck they parked in an alley on Central Avenue soon became a hit—so much so, in fact, that when the folks behind the 8th Street Market began choosing tenants, they were quick to approach the Rios family.
At that point, the family decided to make yet another investment in the Bentonville food scene, this time with a mission in mind.
“What prompted us to open a restaurant at the 8th Street Market was a desire to change the perception of Mexican food,” Rafael Rios tells me one morning when I drop in for a chat and an horchata. “Today, the perception of Mexican food is that it’s low quality, something that isn’t healthy—that if you eat it, you have to stay away from it for a month.”
At Yeyo’s, Rafael says, he and his family want to showcase what’s possible when Mexican food is prepared with a focus on local, sustainable ingredients with a nod to those culinary traditions that exist throughout their home country.
A glance at the menu gives one a sense of this diversity. There’s a pork al pastor taco, for instance, a dish that originated in the city of Puebla and was inspired by the country’s Lebanese immigrants who brought their shawarma-making tradition with them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Then there’s the cochinita pibil from the Yucatan Peninsula—pork that’s marinated in a flaming red paste of achiote seeds and wrapped in banana leaves. Back in the day, the pork was slow-cooked in a pib, a Mayan oven consisting of a hole in the ground lined with hot stones, Rafael tells me. I try not to let my disappointment show when he breaks the news that there is no pib on the premises. Turns out a modern oven can do the trick nowadays.
For their part, Rafael and his family originally hail from Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico, and the menu is peppered with favorites from their home state. For instance, the barbacoa tacos are prepared the Michoacán way, with a spicy guajillo chile sauce. Other Michoacán-inspired dishes include enchiladas stuffed with a medley of pork or chicken, mashed potatoes, feta, mozzarella and that same guajillo chile sauce, and milanesa, a lightly breaded, pan-fried steak.
But while the menu is heavily weighted toward authentic Mexican cuisine, some more familiar dishes did make the cut. For instance, you can order a plate of nachos (made with house-made tortilla chips) and, of course, there’s queso, because, well, Arkansas.
But whether it’s something authentically Mexican or something that leans Tex-Mex, the family’s commitment to local, sustainable ingredients is at the forefront. Much of the produce served at the restaurant comes directly from their farm. And the protein is sourced from local farmers, like Crystal Lake Farms in Decatur and Hanna Family Ranch in Bentonville. On top of that, ingredients such as tortillas are made in-house, while other prepared ingredients—ice cream and telera bread for the tortas—come from local artisans.
What this all translates to are bright, simple flavors capable of transporting you 1,400 miles south, and that’s how I feel when I stop by the next evening for dinner: transported.
IT’S A Saturday night, and the fast-casual restaurant is packed. With the lights turned low for dinner service, there’s a warm, golden glow about the space, thanks to the polished Michoacán cedar tables and chairs. Woven lanterns, also imported from Michoacán, dangle brightly from the ceiling, and in the corner hangs a neon luchador mask, a piece by renowned Austin artist Todd Sanders. The glowing face stares across the dining room into the large open kitchen, which is a hive of activity.
I make a beeline to the bar for a margarita, as I’m told that Yeyo’s houses the largest selection of artisan mezcal in Northwest Arkansas. I watch eagerly as the bartender pulls a bottle of Koch el Mezcal Espadín off the shelf and pours it into my hibiscus margarita-in-the-making. This one, she tells me, is from Oaxaca. It’s tart, smoky, sweet.
I kick off the meal with a plate of street tacos. As I tuck into the pork al pastor taco, the rich layered flavors of garlic, cumin, thyme and guajillo peppers give me a taste of the cultural exchange that went down between the native peoples of Central Mexico and their Lebanese immigrant neighbors. Biting into the cochinita pibil taco—smoky, thanks to the process of wrapping the pork in banana leaves, but with a kick from the habanero and pickled onions—I’m immediately back in the Yucatan Peninsula, a place I recently visited for the first time and often regret leaving. The spicy guajillo chile sauce on the barbacoa taco makes me feel a sort of kinship with the Rios family. A native of New Orleans, I, too, grew up in a place where heat and spice were embraced.
Next up is a classic enchilada. I’ve had many an enchilada in my day—it’s my go-to when I eat Tex-Mex—but I’d never had an enchilada like this before, the Michoacán way, which involves mashed potatoes, feta and mozzarella, as well as a swift kick of guajillo chile. After the first bite, I’m smitten. The milanesa I’ve ordered is yet another homage to Michoacán. It’s melt-in-my-mouth tender on the inside, and crisp and golden on the outside. The bright salsa that comes with the steak is a perfect foil. I devour it. The topper to the meal is a sampling of Rogers-based Me Latte Chocolate ice cream: pine nut, Mexican chocolate, pistachio and queso. Every spoonful pops with flavor.
After dinner, my taste buds reel from all of the punchy flavors: the smokiness of the mezcal, the tartness of the pickled onions, the heat of the guajillos, the queso-ness of the queso ice cream. It’s been a delicious adventure. And the best part is the only passport I need to go there again is my appetite.