Appalachia has a booming Hispanic population — and its growing food scene is making an impact

From strip malls to historic downtown landmarks, buildings across Appalachia today are telling stories of a changing region. Former nail salons, once-stately banks and empty storefronts are beginning fresh chapters in their lifecycle as Hispanic groceries, Mexican restaurants and Latinx-operated small businesses.

Misael Nuñez and his familySarah Baird/Mic

I spoke to Nuñez in Grayson, Kentucky, as he watched his daughter gallop around his restaurant, dressed to impress in a Cinderella costume. His restaurants are located in a tight corridor of the region where southeast Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky meet, and Nuñez is a prime example of the rise in Latinx entrepreneurship in the region. But he’s not only a businessman: Nuñez is among the leaders helping to construct a new narrative of Hispanic-Appalachian culture in places that are often portrayed by national media outlets as sweepingly white and homogenous.

Oh, how wrong they were.

For a hulking, meat-centric entreé, Tres Hermanos offers the “special Brandon”: a 10-ounce T-bone steak, grilled shrimp, crabmeat, mushrooms, onions and tomato, served on a bed of linguini. For those who want a touch of traditional country cooking with their meal, there’s the “chicken and potatoes”: a dish combining grilled chicken strips, potatoes and mushrooms under a smother of cheese sauce, rounded out with a side of green beans. And at La Finca in Spencer, West Virginia, the “moonshine” margarita has become a local happy hour favorite.

Mexican spaghetti, a popular dish at Tres Hermanos NuñezSarah Baird/Mic

Since 2017, the link between Appalachian and Hispanic cuisine has been explored in-depth by seasoned musicians Carla Gover and Yani Vozos through their project Cornbread and Tortillas, drawing on the bedrock role of corn as a foundational ingredient in both cultures. At events across the region, the duo uses singalongs, storytelling workshops and cornbread and tortilla-making lessons as a means of not only further engaging the intersection of Hispanic and Appalachian identities, but to fight back against racism and discrimination using performance and art.

As for Nuñez? The small business magnate is now angling to start a new Appalachian chain of accessible, good-for-you fast casual restaurants: something sorely needed in a region of food deserts. “We’re going to start a burrito chain that serves healthy food,” he laughs, noting that ever since he started hitting the gym, everything in his life has revolved around well-being.

If armchair historians of yesteryear tended to overlook Appalachia’s diversity, their glaring oversights now simply look like willful obliviousness. The strength of the mountains has always been its people, and the glorious diversity of Appalachians — today and tomorrow — refuses to be ignored any longer.