Skip to main content

La Carreta owners bring birria to Green Bay’s west side

Area restaurants pay tribute to family patriarch and creator of original birria recipe

share arrow printer bookmark flag

November 29, 2023

GREEN BAY – Karen Cendejas and her father “Arturo” Juvencio Cendejas are co-owners of local Mexican restaurants La Carreta and Birrieria La Cabañita – successful endeavors Karen said they owe to her grandfather’s birria (a meat stew or soup) recipe.

“We owe all of our success to that recipe,” she said. “It’s brought us this far – before we even came to the United States, it was our sole source of income for the lawyers and the immigration process.”

The restaurant business, Karen said, runs in the Cendejas family – an industry she was born into.

“My dad, Arturo, started all this when he was in his early 20s in Mexico, to help support the family,” she said. “He owned a little restaurant where he sold subs, like tortas, and it was called La Cabañita.”

Karen said her love for birria goes back as far as she can recall, citing it as one of the first flavors she remembers.

“We moved to Guadalajara, which is in Jalisco, and that’s where my dad started selling birria (using) my grandpa’s recipe,” he said. “He sold birria in the mornings on weekends and hot dogs and hamburgers at night. He became pretty well-known around town. Everyone loved his birria, and even to this day, when he goes back to Mexico, people still recognize him.”

That, Karen said, was her childhood – “I grew up with birria.”

“It was the first food I tried as a child, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since,” she said. “Even to this day, that’s my go-to breakfast.”

A deeper meaning
Unfortunately, the patriarch and creator of the original birria recipe, Juvencio Cendejas, passed away earlier this year.

Karen said losing her grandfather has been particularly painful because they were in the process of getting him a visa to show him how far his birria has taken the family.

“We did travel to see him every year, and I was lucky enough to see him twice this year, once with the family and again when I got engaged so he could meet my fiance,” she said. “He was always so invested in our business here, asking how much we sold each taco for and how that compared in pesos. Seeing his face always made all our hard work worth it.”

Though Juvencio wasn’t able to see La Carreta or Birrieria La Cabañita in person, Karen said he was able to tour both locations virtually before he passed.

The journey to now
Karen said her family moved to the U.S. when she was still a child, and quickly found themselves back in the restaurant industry.

“We moved to the United States when I was about nine years old, and my dad followed us two years later,” he said. “We lived in California at first, but a lot of his family was already here in Green Bay. They own La Spiga and Carnitas El Bajio, and my uncle told my dad, ‘Hey, you should come up here and check it out. I’ll offer you a job so you can see how businesses run,’ because he knew my dad’s dream has always been to own a restaurant in the U.S.”

Arturo Cendejas built a small hut by hand for the center of Birrieria La Cabañita (pictured left), reminiscent of his first restaurant in Mexico. Submitted Photo

Thanks to his family’s support, Karen said her father was able to learn the ins and outs of restauranteering in the United States.

“We moved to Green Bay in 2011, and my dad worked at La Spiga and American Foods, saving money until 2019 when he finally had enough savings to open up La Carreta on Mason Street next to my uncle who owned El Bajio,” she said. “We shared a kitchen with them at first, and we started as a snack bar – we did sell birria tacos back then, but they weren’t as much of a big thing.”

After about a year of operating, Arturo and his wife Irma decided to open another location at 1657 Main Street.

“We were running both the Mason Street and the Main Street locations at the same time, while we were also in the process of moving,” Karen said. “At first, La Carreta was still just a snack bar, but we added a few more items to our menu and sometimes we would be here selling tacos until 3 or 4 a.m. I remember one New Year’s Eve, we were here until 7 a.m. serving food.”

The family worked together to keep La Carreta thriving, with Karen’s mother Irma managing the kitchen with her sister.

“I was in high school during this, and I helped my dad do pretty much all of the LLC filing because of the language barrier,” she said. “(After) I graduated high school in 2020, I went on to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, where I started taking graphic design classes, which helped a lot with our website and social media.”

Karen said things started to shift for La Carreta when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States.

“Once COVID hit, because we were closed for dine-in, people started to order takeout, so they were trying our tacos and our birria and falling in love with it,” she said. “We posted a deal on Facebook where if you order this many tacos, you get a free liter of soda, and we completely sold out of birria – we realized we needed to double the size of the pot we were cooking the birria in. We started making double-size batches every day and we were just selling and selling.”

The closure also meant no employees, which Karen said left her and her parents to fulfill takeout orders.

“It was just my mom, my dad and me during the pandemic,” she said. “I remember on Cinco de Mayo, when I was still in high school, I didn’t even have time to attend my online classes because I was working the cash register non-stop while my mom and dad were in the back.”

As their food gained popularity, the Cendejas family recognized an opportunity to expand their menu.

“We realized once we opened back up, we were going to make the switch from being a snack bar to a full taco restaurant,” she said. “So, we put all of our focus into making sure we got out there and let people know.”

As a small, local business, Karen said advertisements were out of budget, so La Carreta has had to rely almost entirely on word of mouth.

“Our customers are the ones who always bring more clients because they try our food and then they let their co-workers and their family members know,” she said. “New customers come in and tell us, ‘Yeah, this person told me about this place.’”

With word spreading fast, the Cendejas once again saw an opportunity to expand.

“We realized we needed to expand to the west side because a lot of our customers (visit from that side of town),” she said. 

At the time, Karen said she was working in real estate – a role she has paused to focus on the restaurant – “so, I was always checking out commercial properties.”

“I found this location at 519 S. Military Ave. (the former Chili Johns), which stood out to me because of its potential – there’s a Starbucks and a bookstore over there and it’s practically on the corner of South Military Avenue and Mason Street, which has been expanding so fast.”

Opening Birrieria La Cabañita 
When the decision was made to open a location on Green Bay’s west side, Karen said her father envisioned replicating La Cabañita, his very first restaurant in Mexico – even naming it Birrieria La Cabañita and building a small hut by hand for the center of the restaurant. 

“We bought the location mid-2022 and our initial idea was to make it a taco shop,” Karen said. “At La Carreta, we have subs and burritos and all of that, and we thought Birrieria La Cabañita was just going to be tacos and they were going to be made right in the center of the restaurant, so you could watch your taco being made.”

Though things had been relatively smooth sailing at first, Karen said Birrieria La Cabañita encountered its first obstacle before the doors even opened.

A hiccup in the permit from the county’s health department, she said, caused some updated plans.

“Even though this used to be a restaurant, it hasn’t been open for two years – so, we needed to talk to the city and make sure that it was still up to standards to be a restaurant, and that set our timeline back,” she said. “We realized we needed a new hood system for the griddle.”

Karen Cendejas said she credits the success of her family’s restaurants to her grandfather’s birria (a meat stew or soup) recipe. Submitted Photo

Until they can replace the hood system, Karen said the restaurant will offer birria and carnitas on the weekends and mornings.

Once opened to full capacity, the restaurant will be Birrieria La Cabañita in the mornings and Taqueria del Primo in the afternoons/evenings.

“The main difference between a Taqueria and a Birrieria is that a Taqueria focuses on selling two to three types of tacos, while a Birrieria sells birria by the pound,” she said. “We’re hoping to create a new experience where depending on the amount of time people have, they can order their food and take it to-go or they can sit down to eat once it’s ready.”

Karen said her father is also in the process of transferring ownership of both restaurants fully to her.

Green Bay’s Hispanic community
Having lived in both Mexico and California before settling in Green Bay, Karen said it has been the best place to call home.

“We feel at home because it feels almost like Mexico, but in a different way,” she said. “A lot of our family members are here, and there’s so many different community resources for Hispanic people.”

Though Green Bay has a flourishing Hispanic community today, Karen said it hasn’t always been that way.

“It’s changed over the past 20 years from what we’ve heard from all of our uncles and aunts,” she said. “When they came to Green Bay, there was nothing, no Mexican stores. To see the big change and how some of our family members have made that impact with their businesses – and us adding on to that especially on the west side since there’s still a lack of that – means a lot.”

Karen said they hope to see more Hispanic businesses on the city’s west side in the future.

“Hopefully as the years go by, we’ll see more – even if it’s competition, we’re not going to see it that way because it’s gonna attract more Hispanics to that side of town,” she said. “It brings more people to us and more people to them.”

share arrow printer bookmark flag