El Cascabel on 1014 3rd Ave., Grinnells old train depot, opened their doors to the public on Dec. 19 2023.
El Cascabel on 1014 3rd Ave., Grinnell’s old train depot, opened their doors to the public on Dec. 19 2023.
Evan Hein

El Cascabel barrels into town, continues family restaurant tradition

Nelson Lopez became a second-generation Iowa restauranteur with the opening of his restaurant, El Cascabel, in the downtown of Grinnell. The Mexican food he now serves, explained Lopez, is greatly inspired by the food he grew up around and was served in his parents’ restaurant.

El Cascabel, which is located in what used to be Grinnell’s train depot, welcomed patrons for the first time on Dec. 19, 2023. Lopez, now 21, first saw the building when it was up for sale a few years back and he was working at his parent’s restaurant. While at the time he was not prepared to open his own restaurant, he said he came back to see if the building was still available when he felt ready.

 Lopez’s parents started La Cabaña, a Mexican restaurant in Newton, Iowa, 25 years ago. Lopez said that he has applied many of the skills he learned while growing up to his knowledge when operating his first independent restaurant.

 “The restaurant is older than me,” said Lopez of La Cabaña. “I was born and raised in restaurants.”

 Any guests to El Cascabel will understand how the restaurant got its name at least once during their meal, as the eatery’s location in the train depot places it right next to Grinnell’s train tracks. “El Cascabel” roughly translates into “The Rattling,” referring to the distinctive shake of the windows whenever a train passes by.

El Cascabel leans into their historical train depot background, with the restaurant’s name itself translating to “The Rattling.” (Evan Hein)

 From a large stained glass train at the entrance to a model train above the bar, El Cascabel maintains aspects of the unique and historic location. “We’ve tried to incorporate the train station as much as we can to our look, and our logo, and our menu and everything we can,” said Lopez.

 Lopez also said he hopes to improve the location, specifically noting a patio which he hopes to refurbish for when the weather improves.

 According to Lopez, El Cascabel’s menu is largely inspired by his father and the cuisine that he is familiar with from Mexico. He highlights the Birria Mexicana — pulled marinated beef with rice, beans, a quesadilla and tortillas — as a menu item he does not often see in Iowa, but has become popular since opening.

 Lopez said that details like the fajita steak are what set El Cascabel apart from other Mexican restaurants. He noted opting for yellow corn tortilla chips over white corn tortilla chips as another intentional choice for quality.

 Pulling from the experience of his family, Lopez said, “We have a pretty good feel for what people want from a Mexican restaurant.”

 In their first month and a half since opening in Grinnell, Lopez said that the community has been receptive and that he has learned so much already about consumer trends in Grinnell.

 “There are a lot of people who were very glad to see us here,” said Lopez, “A lot of people are really glad to see the building back opened up, so they’ve been very welcoming so far.”

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