Maria’s Taqueria in Shepherdstown is making the best possible version of a familiar favorite.

For the purpose of this story we’re going to call Maria’s Taqueria a Mexican restaurant, for lack of a better term, but you should know that Maria herself doesn’t really think of it that way. “I’m white—some weird mix of Irish Catholic, German, Irish, and who knows what else? I’m not doing authentic Mexican food,” she says. “We’ve just tried to put a really fresh spin on making burritos and tacos and some kind of off-the-wall dishes, all of them with the freshest ingredients you could possibly use.” Think of Maria’s in Shepherdstown as being less like an authentic Mexican joint or high-end fusion restaurant (though there’s a little of that, too) and more like a place where the best possible version of your family’s taco Tuesday is happening every day of the week.

Maria Allen graduated from Shepherd University in December 2008—not a great time to be starting a job search. “I was graduating into a completely jobless market,” she says. But she’d worked in restaurants during college; and right around the time she began planning for life after graduation, a little smoothie shop near her apartment moved, and its space went up for lease. It struck her that it might be just barely big enough for a little taco place, and she realized that Shepherdstown was woefully under-equipped in the ethnic food arena. “What college town doesn’t have a Mexican place?” Maria says, o she figured she could open one up there herself. Sure, the restaurant business isn’t exactly known for being cushy, and the vast majority of new restaurants fail. But, hey, it seemed more promising than unemployment. “So I started using my friends as guinea pigs,” Maria says. “I’d cook for them. They’d come over and I’d say ‘Try this;’ and sometimes they’d eat terrible food, and sometimes they’d tell me it was really good.” By the time she had graduated from Shepherd, she was ready to get started. “The night I graduated I walked into this tiny little alleyway shop that used to be a juice shop, and I started painting the walls,” she says. “I was literally painting in my graduation dress.”

That original shop was tiny—like really, really tiny. Five feet wide and 25 feet long, to be exact. Obviously, running a restaurant out of the space was a challenge; they didn’t even have room to store and wash dishes so all the food was served “scrunched in a little foil container.” But Maria says the food was better for it. For example, one of the trademarks of Maria’s is an almost obsessive focus on fresh ingredients. That’s partly because Maria wants to serve good, fresh food, of course. Operating in that tiny space, she was never even tempted to cut corners as many restaurateurs are. “Being in that space for five years really trained us,” she says. “First of all, you’re in a tiny place and you want to make a good impression. But we also had nowhere to store meat and vegetables—it’s not like we had a walk-in cooler in the back.” For the first five years, Maria got fresh batches of food every day simply because she didn’t have room to store a week’s worth of ingredients. She’d buy as much food as she could stuff into the tiny restaurant kitchen in the morning, cook it all up, and serve it to people until she ran out.

The relationship Maria and her employees had with their regular customers was uniquely close. “We knew all of our customers by name; we knew their order. It was so small and unique,” she says. “You weren’t putting your order in with the register person and never seeing the cooks. When you’re in there, you’re talking to the cooks the whole time while you’re waiting for your food.”

Last year Maria’s moved into a larger space in Shepherdstown—it’s still not huge, but there’s room for 28 seats, real plates, and a cooler for beer and wine. But even in this new space with its big kitchen and refrigerator, the owner is trying to stay true to the roots that made Maria’s so special to begin with. She’s not ditching fresh ingredients—though she is using all that space to experiment with new dishes—and she has designed the restaurant so the first thing a customer sees when he or she walks in the door is a friendly face. “We didn’t expand so much that we lost our intimacy,” Maria says. “We just finally offered all the people who had supported us for so long some places to sit down.”

Maria’s Taqueria, 108 East German Street, Shepherdstown, 304.876.3333

written by Shay Maunz | photographed by Nikki Bowman

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