A passion for pupusas: Isabella’s is drawing people from near and far to Muskegon food truck

Isabella Guillen, left, and Ramon Gasca outside their Isabella’s Foods truck.

When Isabella Guillen and Ramon Gasca opened their food truck, Isabella’s Foods, in Muskegon this past spring, they wondered: would people come? Their friends and family have long clamoured for their pupusas (an iconic Salvadoran dish), among a variety of foods they learned to make in their home countries of El Salvador and Mexico, but would others want them?

Since their debut on May 7, 2019, they have learned: yes. People want their food. And they will gladly wait in line for it. ‘They’ being a crowd as diverse as the people who call Muskegon home: factory workers—from here and around the globe; immigrants from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico; artists and business owners and writers and those whose identity the food truck owners know as lovers of pupusas. And tacos. And burritos. And tortas. And the list goes on.

“It was scary at first when we started because didn’t know if people will like the food because it’s something new,” Gasca says from the inside of Isabella’s: a bright yellow food truck that now serves up its combination of Salvadoran and Mexican cuisines in the parking lot of the Lakeside Emporium at 1930 Lakeshore Drive. (The owners of the staple for anyone with even the slightest of sweet teeth, Gary and Laureen Samples, invited Isabella’s owners to make their home outside the Lakeside Emporium after becoming devotees of the food truck’s pupusas.)

“But it seems people really like it,” continues Gasca. “After a month, people kept coming back and sharing about us on Facebook. We saw a big increase in the second month. People come to our truck and say, ‘I want you to come to our festival, to our party, to our company.’ It makes us feel really good.”

Isabella’s Foods offers a variety of Salvadoran and Mexican dishes, including pupusas, pictured on the left, tortas, and more.

The road to opening Isabella’s has been a winding one: one filled with leaving homes—and finding new ones, of navigating foreign lands and learning new languages, of falling in love and pursuing passions and living a life revolving around family.

It’s a road that, for the food truck’s namesake, Isabella Guillen, begins in San Salvador, the capital of the Central American country of El Salvador and the city where she grew up, and, for Gasca, starts in Mexico City, Mexico’s capital and his home until he was 11 years old. Both grew up loving the heat of the kitchen, the space in which they became passionate about cooking, with filling the stomachs of those they loved, with learning about food—and, as they did, about life—from their mothers.

“My mom began to teach me how to cook when I was about eight years old,” Gasca says. “When I was eight, I remember putting a little chair to reach the stove, and my little brother and I learned how to cook there. My mom taught me how to cook eggs, then rice, then meat. I asked her, ‘Why do you want me to cook when I want to play?’ And she said, ‘So when you get married, you’ll know how to cook.’”

Guillen and Gasca both ended up in Los Angeles after leaving their home countries, though in different years and at different ages. Guillen was 27 years old when she made her way from her home city framed by green-tipped volcanoes to California.

“I wanted to get a better life and have new adventures,” Guillen says. “I wanted opportunities I didn’t have in my country. You have to be very rich to have a good life in El Salvador.”

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Gasca landed in the City of Angels at the age of 11, when he moved there with his mother and younger brother.

“We moved here because my dad passed away, and my mom wanted a break so we moved to California to be with family members,” Gasca says. “We went to school and hardly knew any English; we had to start from the bottom, and it was really hard. But we learned the language, and when I turned 14, my mom married a guy from Michigan and we ended up in Lansing.”

Eventually, Guillen and Gasca’s paths crossed in 2004, when the two worked together at a Lansing factory where they manufactured U.S. Army uniforms.

“One day, Isabella showed up, and there was a machine that was empty next to me,” Gasca says. “We became pretty good friends for about three months, and then we decided to go on a date.”

Together, the two began to make their way through life, leaving the factory to work in Lansing restaurants and, eventually, they headed to Muskegon, where their boss in Michigan’s capital had asked them to open the Denny’s on Seaway Drive. Here, in Muskegon, they began to build the life they’d long dreamed of: they purchased their own home, where they’re raising two children, a son and a daughter.

“We really love Muskegon; we never want to leave,” Gasca says. “We have a lot more opportunity here than in Lansing. We had the opportunity to buy our own house here. We bought our food truck. If we lived in Lansing, we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

“We love Musekgon; we love the lake; there’s so many places to go here,” he continues. “There’s Pere Marquette, Wolf Lake, and so many other places. Here, you can live. You can go to the lake, do some barbecue, spend time with family. We love it.”

Isabella’s Foods’ torta.

After working at the Muskegon Denny’s—Gasca as the general manager and Guillen as the kitchen manager—the couple decided to leave in order to have more time to spend with their family and took jobs at the Epi Breads factory and then the IHOP in Norton Shores.

“We bought this food truck while we were working at the factory in 2017, because we worked in a factory but we had a passion for cooking; we were missing cooking,” Gasca says.

Then, in 2019, after years of planning, Guillen and Gasca opened their food truck—where the two now work full-time.

Launching with six items on the menu—including the culinary star, Guillen’s pupusas—the business quickly grew and they now offer 14 different dishes, from quesadillas and Mexican-style tacos to tortas, burritos, and more. And while they have fans of it all, it’s the pupusas that continue to take center stage. For those who don’t know, pupusas are a big, big deal in El Salvador—so much so that the country has proclaimed them their national food. Round, thick flatbreads stuffed with a variety of fillings—at Isabellas, those fillings include steak, chorizo, spinach, pork, and more—the pupusas are ubiquitous in El Salvador, and are the driving force behind the food truck.

“Isabella would make pupusas at home and for friends; she made them for a party and everyone kept asking why we don’t sell them,” Gasca says. “People kept asking and kept asking. We see that they really like it, so that is why we have the food truck.”

And, it’s these pupusas that have drawn everyone from fellow Central American immigrants to business owners like Lakeside Emporium’s Gary and Laureen Samples to the food truck.

“We’ve met a lot of people from El Salvador and Guatemala who will come here; they cannot believe we have pupusas here in Muskegon,” Gasca says. “They’ll say, ‘We went to Grand Rapids for this, and now we don’t have to go there anymore.’”

“We have a lady from El Salvador who lives in Spring Lake who comes here for the pupusas,” he continues. “And the people who haven’t tried them before also love them. That’s how we met the Lakeside Emporium owners. One of their workers brought them a pupusa, and they loved them. They love the chorizo pupusas.”

Isabella Guillen, left, and Ramon Gasca

Guillen and Gasca are effusive when talking about the Samples and say they are deeply grateful to be able to park in Lakeside Emporium’s lot during the winter. Once the winter is over, they’ll likely return to the spot where they first opened the food truck: 939 E. Laketon Ave.

“They are really great people, and we’re really loving being here,” Gasca says. “They really like our food, and we really love their candy.”

As Isabella’s continues to grow, the couple says they hope to eventually open a second food truck to take to various festivals—the demand for them to be at festivals throughout the area is growing and they’d like to be able to operate both a festival truck and a stationary truck. And, as time goes on, Guillen and Gasca say they’d consider launching a brick-and-mortar restaurant—something their customers are already asking for.

But, for now, they’re happy where they are: cooking the food they love, for the people they love.

“We get to do what we love and still have time to be with our family,” Gasca says. “We feel really happy.”

Isabella’s Foods is located at 1930 Lakeshore Dr. in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood. They are open from 11am-6pm Tuesdays through Fridays and 11am to 4pm on Saturdays. Hours can shift depending on the weather; to check if they are open, visit their Facebook page or call (231) 903-8917.

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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