Sanford’s newest restaurant — a leap of faith for its young owner — is already a hit with those who love authentic Mexican food

The blue neon sign behind the cash register at the front of Sanford’s newest restaurant — which reads It was all a dream — is symbolic of owner Jahaira Aguirra Ramos’ “dream big” approach to business. The truth is, A Toda Madre is anything but a fantasy — the 23-year-old recent UNC Wilmington graduate’s “leap of faith” is already a success in the four short months since its opening, thanks to word of mouth and a menu filled with authentic the same Mexican food dishes Ramos fell in love with growing up.

A Toda Madre, located in the former Crossroads Grill on East Main Street not far from Lee County High School, follows a local trend set by new restaurants like Fonda Lupita (which earned national attention after its opening), Lilly’s Restaurant, La Esperanza and Mariscos No. Juan that forgo the traditional “tacos and burritos” Mexican restaurant items for dishes you’d more likely find in restaurants located south of the U.S. border.

Not that you won’t find a giant burrito or a plate of tacos at A Toda Madre, but there’s also joy in discovering chicharron (pork belly) en salsa verde, menudo (a traditional Mexican soup) or a plate of guisos (a hearty stewed beef dish).

“This is a menu of my favorite foods,” says Ramos. “I’d call it ‘authentic,’ but more than that, we hope to keep introducing things people in Sanford have never tried before. I want the experience and the food to feel like a meal you’d have in Mexico.”

Ramos was born and raised in Sanford, but she and her three younger siblings are first-generation Americans; their parents immigrated from Mexico and worked hard to provide for their growing family. That work ethic made an impression on Ramos, but being the oldest meant she had to “grow up” sooner than most kids. She recalls being called on to help out around the house and watch over younger children, and even when she made it to college in Wilmington, she had to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive back home every weekend to help with the family’s food truck, which started around 2019. 

“My friends in college would ask me, ‘Why are you always driving home? Don’t you want to have a real college experience?’” she says. “And looking back, there’s a little regret that I didn’t get to enjoy college as much as I wanted to, but I still wouldn’t trade any of it for anything. I’ve learned a lot from all the hard work. It’s made me who I am today.” 

Her education also prepared her to be a business owner. She passed on a traditional “high school experience” to attend Lee Early College, graduating with about two years worth of college credits before she ever stepped foot in a classroom in Wilmington. At UNCW, she majored in international studies (globalization) and minored in business, earning her undergraduate degree in April 2022.

That December, she posted her first “coming soon” teaser for A Toda Madre on Facebook. The following April — exactly one year after her graduation — her restaurant held its soft opening to the public. On a warm Friday evening in August, the dining area was full, and there was a wait outside. A lot has happened in a short time.

“You know, when I was younger and I had to help other family members who had small restaurants or when I had to help my parents with the food truck, I hated it,” Ramos says. “It was just so much work, but the more I did it, the more I appreciated what they were doing. When the food is good and the service is great, the community is appreciative, and it’s like you’re serving your community. That positive feedback gives you a lot of confidence and gratitude. 

“We’re experiencing that now. We’re meeting new people every day. Some of our customers knew us from the food truck, but most are new. Our plan is to become a big part of this community and stay and grow here as a business.”

Positive customer feedback is what inspired the name of Ramos’ restaurant. “A Toda Madre,” despite its literal translation (you can look it up, too), has nothing to do with Ramos’ mother or any mother, actually. 

The term is slang for “It was awesome,” “You hit it out of the park” or “That was freaking great.” 

“For example, I’d say, ‘How was your food?’” Ramos explains, “And they’d say, ‘Es a toda madre’ … which means they loved it. That’s what we’re hoping for.” 

— by Billy Liggett