When Noel Jaimes Sr. came to Texas from South Mexico by himself at the age of 19, he had a dream. Friends, family members, coworkers and later even his own wife would shake their head at his dream, but he promised them all he would achieve his goal.
The goal was simple: to open up a hamburger stand and bring joy to customers through his delicious food. Although Jaimes never did open that hamburger stand, he did better by opening up a Mexican restaurant after years of hard work.
Upon arriving in Texas in 1975, Jaimes began building fences in Ingram for $5 a day.
“To me, that wage was really something,” Jaimes said. “It would take three days of work in Mexico to earn that $5, so I was very happy to be working in America.”
Soon after, he moved to Austin and began working at El Chico as a busboy. Jaimes was a hard worker and quickly moved up the ranks to dishwasher, chip maker, line cook and later, assistant kitchen manager. He transferred to El Chico’s Waco location in the ’80s where he met his wife, Jacinta.
The couple worked in restaurants for 24 years, saving every spare penny, which wasn’t easy to do with seven children. Finally, in 1999, they opened Tapatio in downtown Waco. The knowledge gained from years working at places such as El Chico, Pancho’s and Lolita’s helped the Jaimeses create their own menu and establish Tapatio as a local favorite.
In 2012, they opened Abuelita’s in Meridian, which was an instant hit. When the lease was up on the Tapatio location, Jaimes began looking for a spot to open a second Abuelita’s in Waco. He was thrilled when a location became available on Valley Mills Drive, and the restaurant doors were opened in December 2016.
“Waco is where I really learned how to cook, and where I found my wife,” Jaimes said. “I feel lucky to be able to have my own restaurant here.”
When asked where the restaurant’s name came from, Jaimes explained that abuelita means “grandmother “in Spanish. The restaurant was named for his grandmother, his wife’s grandmother, and even his wife as she is now a grandmother.
Abuelita’s is truly a family affair. Jacinta mainly manages the Meridian location, while Noel runs the Waco restaurant Tuesday through Saturday and helps out in Meridian on the remaining days. All seven children come to help when needed, but Jaimes thinks they’re a little tired of the restaurant business.
“I made them all work when they were little instead of going out to play,” he joked, “so now none of them want to run their own restaurant. They still work hard, but they have their own dreams.”
On any given day, Jaimes can be seen greeting customers at the front entrance, bringing drinks to the tables, and even helping out in the kitchen when needed. He first discovered a love for cooking as a child helping his mother make tortillas, and that love is transferred into each dish he creates.
“I have a favorite dish from every section, but mostly when I eat here I eat the enchiladas. I spent a long time trying different things to make them perfect and I love them! I was a skinny boy in Mexico, but now you can tell I make good food just by looking at me,” he joked, pointing to his stomach.
The enchilada dinner comes with rice and beans for $8.79, and customers have their choice of cheese, beef or chicken enchiladas topped with chile con carne. By request, they can be smothered with chile con queso instead. Thursdays are a favorite because the enchiladas are on special for $5.39 all day long.
Another customer favorite is the Campeche steak dinner. A sizzling 10-ounce strip steak is served in a hot skillet and topped with mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and cheese. A side of rice, charro beans, guacamole and pico de gallo is included — all for $12.99.
Jaimes considers the food at Abuelita’s to be “Tex-Mex but with more Mexican flavor” from all the different spices he uses.
The menus in Waco and Meridian are the same, but the Waco menu also includes the Baylor burrito. Stuffed full of beef, the burrito is topped with half chile con carne and half chile con queso for the best of both worlds.
Other specialties include Tex-Mex staples such as fajitas, giant tacos, and flautas, along with a few dishes you don’t see on the average menu such as niños enbueltos — bacon-wrapped shrimp served on a bed of rice and topped with a special cream sauce.
Everything at Abuelita’s is made fresh daily, including the beans, chile con carne, chile con queso, and everyone’s favorite — the salsa. The restaurant also offers a full bar.
The restaurant does take reservations, especially on the weekends during dinner, which is the busiest time. Catering is also available, and the staff works hard to accommodate customer requests and give them the best experience possible, he said.
Jaimes’ warm personality and hard work make him a good friend and even better boss. Loyal customers come to Waco from Meridian to visit with him and to support the new restaurant, and one longtime server from Tapatio, Isabel Jimenez, returned to work for Jaimes when she heard he was opening a second Abuelita’s location.
The freshly prepared food, the brightly decorated walls complete with banners and sombreros, and the welcoming family atmosphere all come together to create a space Jaimes is proud to call his.
“I promised everyone I would achieve my dream of someday owning my own restaurant, and I did it,” he said. “I continue to dream that Abuelita’s will grow to even more locations someday, but right now I am so happy to have these two restaurants. My wife and I worked hard, and our dream has come true.”
Abuelita's Mexican Restaurant
1623 N. Valley Mills Drive
Mon-Thu, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Fri-Sat, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sun, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Also: 502 W. Morgan St. in Meridian
Both locations are on Facebook