NORMAL - I hear people wonder why people stay in the restaurant business. The commitment of time and care seems almost insane to those not in the business - and maybe to those who are.

However, it just seems to be a part of certain people, what they are meant to do. It's akin to artists making art. Not doing it is more insane for them.

Jose and Carmela Hurtado left the restaurant business because of family health issues a couple years ago. Carmela has a job she likes at a department store, and she plans to keep it. But Jose couldn't stay away.

They had kept the furniture and restaurant equipment from Carmela's Restaurant, and they have pulled it out to create Fort Jesse Cafe. Primarily, the restaurant is Jose's undertaking, with Carmela assisting part time while working the other job.

This time, he's serving only breakfast and lunch, with breakfast available until closing at 2 p.m. I'm guessing that reduces the work to the level of merely all-consuming.

Jose's cooking is dual-edged, Mexican and American. For Carmela's Restaurant, that meant what amounted to two menus for all three meals. Now it's down to a five-page menu, plus specials, and I didn't feel cheated by the selection.

I've had breakfast at Fort Jesse Cafe twice, and its two-for-two on successes.

Once, I had the Greek omelet. If was fresh and flavorful, bright and alive with sausage, onion and feta cheese. Served with hash browns and toast, the food filled a standard-sized dinner plate, and the price was an ultra-reasonable $6.25.

On my first visit, I had carne asada y huevos rancheros ($7.25). This is a Mexican version of steak and eggs.

The steak (asada) is a tough, nicely spiced breakfast beef, and the eggs (huevos) are over easy. The red seasoning sauce on top makes them huevos rancheros, or ranch eggs. Flour tortillas come on the side instead of toast.

Another signature item I have yet to try from the Mexican breakfast side of the menu is chilaquiles con huevos rancheros. Chilaquiles are fried tortillas topped with sauce and cheese along with the above-described ranch eggs. It comes with refried beans.

Two people have talked up the chilaquiles. While both work there, the fact that the entire meal is $6.50 bolsters my belief that they have no ulterior motives in doing so.

One was my waitress, who was competent and accommodating in all facets on both trips. The other was Mrs. Hurtado, who took a few moments to show me around the menu.

Mrs. Hurtado also noted they make their own soup, fresh refried beans and their own sauces - hot, medium and mild. In fact, everything is homemade. That's how they make food at Fort Jesse Cafe, how they did it at Carmela's Restaurant and how they did it at their place before that, South Hill Neighborhood Cafe.

More on the menu

In addition to Mexican breakfasts and omelets, the menu features eight skillets.

Lunch is burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads, plus rotating daily specials from their previous restaurant menus. Walleye on Friday, fried chicken on Sunday, liver and onion on Monday, etc.

There's a children's menu, with selections for $4.25, but its worth noting that all the adult menu items are less than $7.


RC soda drinks, plus coffee and raspberry tea are the extent of drinks. No alcoholic beverages are served.


Fort Jesse Cafe, 1521 Fort Jesse Road, opened in late spring in a commercial shopping strip after a remodel of the former Denny's Doughnut spot along Normal's east side.

The location is directly across the street from the Firestone plant. That's a bit west of the Mitsubishi car dealership and on the same side of the street as the dealership.

Note that Fort Jesse Road becomes Willow Street near the center of town, so coming from the heart of the city, take Willow Street eastbound.


6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.


Available for breakfasts and lunches.


Load comments