EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another story of a multiple-part series that highlights some of South Dakota's best small-town eateries. These stories will run through the summer as tourists are traveling South Dakota, looking for places to stop and eat. Here's the sixth story in the series showing the great eateries South Dakota has to offer.
GREGORY, S.D. — In a bigger city, the Barretos' restaurant on the corner in downtown Gregory, S.D., might be called a "fusion."
But there's no advertising gimmickry on this corner restaurant. Just a plainspoken host and owner with a gregarious laugh behind the counter.
"I'm the white girl, and he's the Mexican," said Jill Barreto, with a smile. "It works."
Barreto (aka "Sissy" to family) grew up in Gregory, South Dakota, car-hopping at a local drive-in from the age of 12. At 14, she matriculated to the kitchen. Then, she moved west to Utah, met her now-husband Arturo at a restaurant, and they started their own joint at a resort.
"He's got a degree in criminal justice, but we're restaurant people. Always have been," Jill said.
When their eldest was ready for junior high, Jill said she didn't want to send her son to a school bigger than her hometown's population. So in 2013, they purchased the old Stukel's Cafe and opened Sissy's.
The menu reflects the duality of their ethnic forging, says Jill, with one half all Mexican dishes and the other all American. Even the decor is split down the middle -- with paintings of a traditional Mexican village along one wall and natural illustrations of flowers from a family member up the Missouri River on the other.
And the hybrid doesn't stop at food. Earlier this summer, one of the Barreto's sons -- though he can't count bohemians within any lineage -- debuted on tuba at Czech Days over in Tabor.
"You'll find polka in the northern states of Mexico," said Arturo. "It's kind of slipped in."
Like music, like cooking here at Sissy's Cafe in Gregory: it's a blend with the Barretos' own flavors.
One day, in late July, when smoke from Canadian fires filled the town, Arturo sizzled up brisket next to his sauce pots in the kitchen -- either on a sandwich or in a burrito. Forum News Service ordered a burrito.
"Good choice," whispered Jill.
Gregory sits at a crossroads near the 100th Meridian. A road east of town dips down into Nebraska. The farm town (pop. 1,295) is steeped in century-old ranches and farms, and it's located historically on the former boundary of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Reservation on U.S. Highway 18. Travel east and you'll enter chislic country near Menno. West takes you, eventually, to Big Bat's burritos in Pine Ridge.
Seated at this confluence of cultural and food identities is where the Barretos are happiest, though. Down the street at The Homesteader, Mitchell Republic readers noted the "classic steakhouse offerings," including stir-fry channeling the owner's Vietnamese roots. Up the road in Mission, kids at the Rosebud Boys & Girls Club have been known to crack open the cookbook of Sean Sherman, AKA "The Sioux Chef."
Like Laynee Brandt up in Agar's The Bunkhouse, when COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020 and Sissy's shifted to take-out, they kept working indoors, replacing the floor. While restaurants say they can't find enough workers, Sissy's has maintained a stable staff, including one gal (Brandi) wiping down tables they refer to as "their adopted daughter."
Her boys also stay busy in the summer months, helping out, learning the family trade. Jill is easy-going with a wide smile and big laugh. Arturo is quieter, but thoughtful, tending to his sauces and from-scratch recipes. When he first arrived in Utah, he says he was "kind of forced" to work in kitchens.
"He didn't cook at all in Mexico," she said. "His mommy did it all for him."
The variety keeps them busy and their customers. They post specials on Facebook and start fielding calls in the morning. One gentleman, a writer for the newspaper, appears every morning for coffee.
"When I retired from the university (in Vermillion) and moved back to Gregory, I decided that since I'm single, I'm just going to get up early and go open up Sissy's Cafe and have breakfast, " says Shoemaker, who arrives around 6 every morning. "It's kind of slow initially. But there are always a few folks who come in for breakfast, and I just enjoy getting out of the house and visiting with other people and having a good time."
And that's the flow of traffic in a small-town cafe. Travelers, locals, even curious journalists popping by.
By the mid-afternoon on Thursday, July 29, the Olympics played on the television -- water polo between two nations a world away. Arturo gave FNS a traditional cookie (marzipan).
Asked if you could send away, he shook his head.
"They're available around here," he said.
So much is, even in rural South Dakota, if you know where to look.