Even when limes shot up to $80 for a case of about 230, Daniel Gutierrez Jr. proceeded with his wholesale order for the restaurant he runs with his father, Nuevo Leon on 18th Street in Pilsen.
“I wanted to do it still,” he told me. “This is Nuevo Leon restaurant,” which has been in business for 52 years.
Not so fast, his father, Daniel Sr., told him and yanked the order. Usually around $20 to $25 a case, his father could not stomach the skyrocketing prices, which reached around $130 in the last few months, a few Mexican restaurant owners told me.
Instead they have been buying less expensive lemons, far from a hit in Mexico and with anyone who loves Mexican cuisine.
“How can you compare lemons to limes?” Daniel Jr., 43, asked.
Limes are a staple in Mexican kitchens, squeezed over steak, menudo as well as other soups, fish, chicken, tacos, guacamole — just about every dish.
“They give a specific flavor and play a specific role with their pungent acidity and strong, fresh flavor,” said Chris Koetke, vice president of Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. “It’s all about balancing flavor. The lime makes it more complete. If you leave acid out, food tastes heavier, fattier. Lime juice lightens it and makes you go back for more.”
Running out of limes is akin to running out of salt.
They are like ketchup for hamburgers, said Emiterio Gutierrez, Daniel Sr.’s brother who owns a Nuevo Leon restaurant in Little Village.
After hanging up with his wholesaler Tuesday, he noted that prices seem to finally be coming down. He was quoted $35 for a case. “I can afford it now,” he said.
The U.S. imports most of its limes from Mexico, also a major source for avocados, tomatoes and other produce.
Disease has hit some lime groves hard, similar to oranges and grapefruit in Florida, while droughts or excessive rain have marred some regions.
Mexico, and in turn the U.S., also are at the mercy of cartels, which have resorted to hijacking produce trucks or demanding a cut from farmers, according to reports.
Both countries have felt the effects. Kendall’s Koetke, teaching in Mexico this week, was stunned Tuesday while dining out and getting a dark green Persian lime with his dish instead of the yellowish green Mexican lime, a hallmark of Mexican cuisine.
“It really struck me that I’ve never seen this in Mexico,” he said.
Persian limes are less flavorful and lemons have a subtle flavor compared with limes, Koetke said.
“People think of lemons as close cousins to limes,” Koetke said. “But as a chef, you could not make Crepe Suzette with grapefruit if you don’t have oranges.”
Both Nuevo Leon restaurants, and other Mexican eateries, have resorted to using lemons. Most diners understand the restaurant is in a bind, Daniel Sr. said, adding, “customers aren’t buying them at the stores because they are expensive.”
Many Mexican restaurants are known for their bargain prices and would have to raise them if they bought limes at incredibly steep prices.
A couple still can dine for $15, a happy customer told Nuevo Leon’s Daniel Jr. on Cinco de Mayo. They cannot afford to get away from that.
Prices have to suit the clientele, Roberto Gomez, 29, who owns Don Pepe restaurant on 26th Street in Little Village, said. “It’s working class,” he added.
Gomez specializes in cuisine from Guadalajara. When he brings customers steamed tacos in red chili with a customary salad and lemons, he gets funny looks.
“People look at it,” he says, “and their expression says it all.”