A lot of local business owners give back to the community. It’ s hard not to when you the community is your customer base.
But Mario Berlanga, owner of Mario’s West Side Market, really walks the walk and talks the talk.
He adopted two children, now 18, who played on the Little League baseball team he sponsored more than a decade ago after hearing how their parents abandoned them; and, of the 38 employees who work for him, 32 are from the immediate West Side, many live within walking distance of the market.
Flanked by a McDonald’s, a Jack in the Box, a Dollar General and a soon-to-open Pollo Loco, Mario’s West Side Market is an independent operator in a sea of franchises, located on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lake Mead boulevards.
It’s the only place in that area offering a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and home-cooked meals in a part of town where processed foods and supersized drinks are commonplace. In short, Mario’s is the “Cheers” version of a store and restaurant: Everybody knows just about everybody by name, including Berlanga, who grew up in the Marble Manor and Casa Rosa subsidized housing projects just blocks away.
As it turns out, it was Berlanga’s next-door neighbor at Casa Rosa, an outgoing elderly black woman by the name of Ida Jackson, who taught him and his 10 brothers and sisters how to prepare dozens of dishes from the Deep South, some of which you can now be found in Mario’s delicatessen, from the Peach Cobbler to the smothered pork chops to the Ox Tail soup.
Indeed, it was Ida’s recipes — along with her wisdom — that ended up having a lasting effect on Berlanga’s life, serving as quite the contrast from the tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas that his family was accustomed to eating, his mother being from Laredo, Texas; his father a few hours south of the border, in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.
Berlanga as a teen worked alongside Ida in her kitchen at Casa Rosa, which has since been torn down. But her recipes keep on living, along with the impression she left on Berlanga. When the flour and cheese would come in bulk, courtesy of the a food stamp program, Ida taught Berlanga how to quickly scan the back of flour for cake recipes.
As for the cheese, well, it could be added to just about anything, Berlanga quickly discovered.
“We used to call them ‘commodities,’ ” said Berlanga, 52, whose birth name was actually Maurilio only nobody could pronounce it in grade school and so it became “Mario” by default.