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Categories: FEB/MARCH 2024, FOOD & DRINK

La Bella Morelia: Food, familia, and faith

Story by Edna Ruiz Adams | Photos by Yadira Sandoval Rodríguez

Since childhood, Angelica Marin knew she’d be a restauranteur. With a never-ending cup of determination and a dash of destiny, she made that goal a reality in Downtown Macon. Together, she and her children have surpassed that dream, expanding to a food truck and tequila bar. 

Abuela and the rancho

Angelica grew up on a rancho (ranch) in Ciudad Hidalgo – a rural city of about 71,000 people in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which lies between the Sierra Madre de Sur mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Angelica’s abuela (grandmother), taught her so much, including how to cook homemade meals, Angelica said.

Living on a rural rancho, sourcing groceries from the store wasn’t a feasible option due to transportation hurdles and food cost. On Ciudad Hidalgo tables, most ingredients were home-grown in backyards or family farms within walking distance.

That was the case for Angelica and her family. They made what they could with what they had. Still, those circumstances led to the soulful and authentic Michoacán dishes that have earned La Bella Morelia such a loyal following.

Take for example their deceptively simple carnitas. Just three ingredients: pork, lard, and salt. But it’s made mouth wateringly complex by the regional method of slow-cooking it confit in its flavorful fat. Serious Eats describes Michoacán regional cuisine as “the soul food of Mexico” for the way it uses readily, locally available ingredients, resulting in dishes that stick to your ribs after providing a powerhouse experience for your palate, even when ingredients are few compared to the extensive pantry required for, say, a Oaxacan mole. 

Angelica still remembers Abuela specially preparing her favorite childhood meal – huevo en salsa (eggs in salsa), a scrambled egg with homemade salsa. Simple, yet delicious.

“I loved my abuela’s dishes. They were always so good,” said Angelica. “My parents traveled a lot, so I stayed with my abuela, and I had to learn how to cook and do chores. She was much older and needed help.” By the time Angelica was seven or eight, she’d begun to recreate Abuela’s recipes.

Angelica would go on to make those dishes for her own family. She raised four children in Mexico: Marco, German, Nayeli, and Yari, before deciding to pursue the American dream. In 2001, she moved to Macon.

Tireless early years in Macon

She had many jobs – anything to support her family. During the week she would work at restaurants like Margaritas or American Deli, as well as a textile shop, and cleaned houses and offices. On the weekends, she would pack up her car with plates of homemade Mexican food, along with her children, and drive to mobile home communities and Spanish-speaking neighborhoods around Macon.

“I remember we were very young when my mom started selling food in neighborhoods where there were Hispanic families,” said Angelica’s 33-year-old son, German Marin. “Her food has always been delicious. People started recognizing that then.”

Stand at Smiley’s Flea Market 

Word spread about Angelica’s meals, so her now family of five (including her youngest, Allison) decided to start serving plates on the weekends at Smiley’s Flea Market on Hawkinsville Rd. As a single mother, Angelica still had to keep her cleaning jobs to provide for her family.

They sold dishes inspired by her hometown, such as tacos, quesadillas, menudo (a soup made with cow’s stomach in broth with a red chili pepper base), and other plates. Every member of the family helped out, in addition to going to school and working other part-time jobs to chip in. This lasted about eight years before Angelica finally decided it was time to try out this dream of hers.

“My children have always helped and supported me. I’m thankful to God that they have never left me alone,” Angelica expressed. So, it was no surprise that when she told them she was ready to open a restaurant in Downtown Macon, they were immediately on board.

“A lot of people told me it wasn’t a good idea to open a restaurant in Downtown Macon. They said there were ‘different’ people in this area, who wouldn’t like my type of food,” said Angelica. “So, I took it as a challenge.”

“We risked it all”     

Angelica has never been a fan of fast food. To her, a meal should always be homemade with fresh ingredients, just like her Abuela taught her.

“It’s important for me to make tortillas made from scratch, whether it’s for my children or for whoever I cook for,” said Angelica.

From-scratch tortillas and other authentic Mexican dishes couldn’t be found downtown until La Bella Morelia opened in 2017 on the corner of Poplar St. and MLK. La Bella Morelia means ‘The Beautiful Morelia’, referring to Morelia, the state capital of Michoacán.     

The restaurant is best known for their authentic Mexican tacos.

“I wanted to bring the flavor of my rancho to Macon. We make everything from scratch, down to the different salsa made for each plate,” said Angelica. “For our salsas, it’s peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onion, salt, and pepper. The most natural ingredients possible.”

Opening a business was not easy for the Marin family. They didn’t know where to start, but they learned. Before opening the restaurant, German worked at El Sombrero as a bartender, where he learned about the restaurant business and what it took to run a successful one. Once they found a location, they hit the ground running.

“We used all of our savings and risked it all,” said German.

That risk would pay off. They had lines out the door some days as their customers from Smiley’s followed them to their new location and spread the word across the county. They had no plan for marketing, and they did not need it. They stayed busy thanks to the people of Macon.

“Our customers are very special to us. They’re more like family at this point,” Angelica reflected.

It wasn’t even a year before they knew they had to expand. Their location was getting too small for their growing business. Their customers agreed and even helped them learn about new building leases, with the understanding that they wanted to stay in downtown. 

Growth on Mulberry

As luck would have it, a spot on Mulberry St. became available as their lease on Poplar was ending in 2018. This space doubled their footprint, with room to spare for a full bar. Even then, there were some doubters who said the restaurant would not thrive on “that side of downtown,” but Angelica knew they would be okay. “I always tell my kids to have faith and work hard, and that’s just what we did,” she said.

La Bella Morelia’s welcoming location on Mulberry Street.

As the restaurant grew, even the skeptical enjoyed the new space, expanded menu, and full bar. The convenient location near the Bibb County Courthouse even attracted new customers.

Pushing past the pandemic: Daisy blossoms

Things were continuing to flourish, then the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., and like businesses across the world, La Bella Morelia was facing hardships. According to U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy 2022 Small Business Profile, between March 2020 and March 2021, 29, 153 Georgia establishments closed. Angelica says their customers would not let them be part of that statistic.

“They really helped us during that time,” she said. “We were only doing takeout orders then and didn’t know if we would make it, but our customers proved otherwise. They spread the word and told their friends and families to order meals, and they did.”

Once things got somewhat back to normal and they reopened the dining room, German was already thinking about the next project for his family. As a bartender for many years, he knew he wanted to open his own bar. 

German mixes a cocktail at La Bella Morelia.

Once again, his regular customers supported and encouraged him. They helped find him a location on Cherry St. for his tequila bar concept. In April 2023, German opened The Daisy Tequila Bar. “This was another big risk, but it has been worth it,” said German.

The Daisy Tequila Bar is Macon’s first and only tequila bar, offering dozens of artisan tequilas, handcrafted cocktails, and Mexican street food small plates. Like La Bella Morelia, it also serves an off-menu perk – friendly faces and a homey environment.

“We always want all of our customers to feel like they are at their home and part of our family,” said German. “That’s something our mom has always taught us. ‘Be a good person; be humble and friendly to everyone.’”

That mindset, and their yummy recipes, have allowed the family to expand again. Around the time German was opening the Tequila Bar, his 34-year-old brother, Marco, was getting La Bella Morelia food truck up and running.

Taking it to the streets

“I worked in construction, and we had quick 30-minute lunch breaks. Didn’t give us much time to eat good food,” said Marco. “That’s where the food truck idea came from. I talked to German about it, and he said, ‘Let’s do it, but you’ll be in charge of it.’”

Marco Marin stands with wife Savannah at La Bella’s food truck, used for catering and special events.

The food truck became operational in summer 2023. Since then, it sizzles almost every day of the week at different businesses like Kumho Tire, car dealerships, Geico, and schools. It rolls to special events day and night, with tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tortas, and tostadas.

“We’ve been very blessed to stay this busy with the truck,” said Marco. “It’s like, if we look for it, we find it.”

Familia, always

Angelica believes they’ve been blessed in so many aspects, to the point that sometimes, she doesn’t believe this is the life she lives. While her two sons are responsible for the Tequila Bar and food truck, they still come by the restaurant to help. Angelica’s daughters Nayeli and Yari help at the restaurant a majority of the time; it’s likely that if you’ve been to the restaurant, you have been greeted by their warm smiles and waited on by them. The youngest, Allison, who is 14 years old, helps when she’s not at school.

“It’s hard because when you have four small children and you’re working hard to give them a better life, then 11 years after the last child, you have another,” said Angelica. “For me, it was very difficult, but at the end of the day, I’m thankful because my children are still with me and have never left my side.”

The Marin family says the goal is to continue growing the business and for each sibling to have their own business, but to always stay together. “I always tell them to remain close and united because there is nothing more important than family,” said Angelica. “I hope they will always remain that way and never forget where they come from.”

Learn more and place to-go orders on their website. Follow La Bella Morelia on Facebook for the scoop on upcoming food truck locations.