Walking into Rita’s Taqueria in Temple feels more like walking into your mom’s kitchen. Leomarie Elmaroudi, owner and self-appointed hostess, welcomes all who enter with a smile, and sometimes a hug.

The dining room is a sensory experience with its colorful walls and décor, the aroma of freshly cooked food, two distinct languages being spoken: English and Spanish, and the lively sounds of Spanish music filling the air. One of her regular customers sits at a table, singing along to “Guadalajara.”

Specials of the day are written in colored chalk on a blackboard. But most who enter already know what they want.

“I always wanted to open a restaurant,” said Leomarie, who was born in Puerto Rico. “I love cooking and I want people to enjoy my tastes.”

Leomarie calls her food a fusion of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Moroccan flavors, a blend of cultures.

Named for her 10-year-old daughter, Ritamarie, the Taqueria has been open a little more than a year — a lifelong dream of Leo’s. It is just another leg of the journey that Leomarie and her husband, Youssef Elmaroudi began together 27 years ago, a journey that was fraught with challenges that were met with faith, love, family and friends.

It all began in New York when Leomarie was 17. Her mom died six years earlier and she wanted a change so she moved from her tropical island to Manhattan Island to live with her Aunt Leida.

She wanted to become a pharmacist, but when pharmacy school proved too expensive, she opted for pharmacy technician, working at a drugstore just a few blocks away on Broadway from where she lived with her aunt.

Leomarie enjoyed walking to work every morning to her job at 96th and Broadway, stopping at the 24-hour deli to pick up chocolate and a bagel. One day she noticed a handsome young man working behind the counter.

“The first time I saw him, I fell in love,” she said.

When she asked a mutual friend about the young man in the deli, his response was, “You mean Morocco?” referring to Youssef.

When Leomarie learned Youssef worked the night shift she made sure to get to the deli extra early in the morning for her breakfast before he left for the day.

Eventually, her friend introduced them but it took Youssef three months to ask Leomarie out on a first date — dinner and a movie.

“He was charismatic, outgoing, with an incredible sense of humor,” said Leomarie, her eyes sparkling.

They dated for a year before they married in Morocco with his family present.

In 1996, while still living in New York, Youssef was offered a job in New Orleans, where they lived until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Katrina’s aftermath

Leomarie was used to hurricanes. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she said she and her family always rode out the storms, turning the occasion into a party.

“We’d barbecue with neighbors, we had hurricanes all the time,” she said, matter-of-factly.

But August 2005 was different.

The Elmaroudis were living in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans, since they moved from New York in 1996. Metairie is in Jefferson Parish and sits between Lake Pontchartrain, a canal and a levee that arched around the city to protect it from floods.

When they heard the storm warnings, their first response was to ride it out, despite federal recommendations to evacuate. But the storm was growing. While they watched the weather reports on TV, Leo called her father, Jose, in Puerto Rico, for his advice.

“He said, ‘Gather your things and leave,’” she recalled. “He doesn’t usually get scared with hurricanes, but he said, ‘just leave. The eye is coming directly toward you.’”

To complicate matters, she was one month pregnant with their first child, a miracle in itself as the couple had been hoping to have a baby for 15 years. Previously, she suffered two miscarriages; one was a set of twins who were six months old in the womb.

“I didn’t want to jeopardize my baby,” she said.

So she packed three sets of clothes for herself and her husband, “three pants, three shirts, and three pair of underwear each.”

“I thought we would be coming back,” she said.

In the early morning of Aug. 27, a cloudless, sunny day, the Elmaroudis packed their truck, grabbed their dog, Joey, and embarked on what they thought would be a quick turnaround journey. Before they left, Youssef put all their valuables on the second floor of their home, thinking it would be safe.

Two of his sisters (one who was expecting), his brother-in-law and a friend followed in a second vehicle.

“I thought we’d go to Baton Rouge and be back in three days,” Leomarie said. “We dodged hurricanes like bullets on Puerto Rico.”

Somewhere between 8 and 10 a.m., the convoy left Metairie, traveling on Interstate 10, thinking all along they were heading toward Baton Rouge.

“We got stuck on I-10, it was at a standstill,” said Youssef. “The police sent us off in a different direction from Baton Rouge.”

To make matters worse, Leomarie was having complications with her pregnancy.

“I thought we would lose the baby,” Youssef said.

Stuck in an evacuation route, Youssef started talking to himself, silently asking questions about what he should do.

“Should we get a helicopter to transport her to a hospital?” he asked himself. “We were bumper to bumper. Everyone was anxious. People were pulling off the side of the road to sleep.”

It took them 15 hours to get to Jackson, Miss. By the time they arrived, all the hotels were booked. At the last hotel they stopped, a cancellation opened up one room with two beds and Youssef booked it for the families. The families made it to the room and the moment they set down their bags, he said all the lights and air conditioning went out. Six adults shared one room, including two expectant mothers. The men gave the beds to the women and they slept in their cars overnight.

“We spent four nights in that hotel room that had no lights or A/C,” he said, adding that it was hot and humid.

Eventually they made it to Columbus, Miss., where they stayed the night with a friend in a one-bedroom apartment. The next day they moved onto the Columbus Air Force Base that opened its gates to evacuees. The families were offered an empty house that base volunteers furnished with appliances, beds and groceries.

“They cooked for us every single day. They brought us clothes, baby clothes, even carriages for the (unborn) babies, diapers, you name it. Columbus Air Force Base was a godsend,” said Youssef, who grew up on an air force base in Morocco.

The two families stayed in the house for three weeks. During that time, Youssef and his brother-in-law, Delwyn, drove back to New Orleans to assess the damage and try to recover some of their belongings.

Feeling anxious

A representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency met Youssef and said he could check his house, but couldn’t take anything with him. When he got to his home, there was nothing left to take.

“The water mark in the house was eight feet high,” he said, raising his arm to the ceiling to illustrate the depth. “Everything we cared about was gone. Our house was looted, cash and jewelry was taken, photos...” Including their wedding photos from Morocco.

For the first time in his life Youssef said he felt anxiety.

“My mom was in Morocco, watching the television and recognized the street I worked on. She called me and I felt anxiety for the first time. It hit me: the city was falling apart, what am I doing here?” he said he asked himself.

As someone who takes his responsibility to his family very seriously, he said he felt helpless. Through it all, however, he never lost faith and it was his faith, love and friends that helped the Elmaroudis come through the fog of despair.

A friend who owned a business in Dallas invited Youssef and his family to come to Texas. In Dallas, he learned the gas station business with his friend.

Eight months after leaving their home in Louisiana, Leomarie gave birth to a healthy daughter, Ritamarie, a child they thought they’d never have.

“She drained it (the stress), all the anxiety, took it away from us,” he said of his daughter’s birth.

Things continued to look up for the family, and in 2007, the Elmaroudis moved to Temple when Youssef, who now owned two Central Texas service stations, took ownership of a third service station in Troy.

“It was the same gas station we stopped at when we traveled from Louisiana to San Antonio to see family,” he said.

Another loss

All seemed to be going well for the Elmaroudis, they were both hands-on workers, but loss came once again to the family who had already lost so much. Their business in Troy was taken over by imminent domain and Youssef was forced to close it.

In time, things began to settle back into a normalcy for the couple — Youssef still had his other two businesses to maintain — and they decided to try for another child, a brother or sister for Ritamarie. But additional children were not an option for the couple, despite their hopes of growing their family.

In 2008, a visit to her doctor in Dallas revealed that Leomarie was in the early stages of uterine cancer. A hysterectomy was performed, and she escaped chemotherapy. Two and a half years later, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, this time more aggressive, and surgery was followed by chemotherapy.

“I’ve been cancer free for two and a half years,” Leomarie said.

Once again, it was their faith that got them through the dark days.

“We believe in God. Believe in family and faith. We have good neighbors and good friends waiting for this one (Ritamarie) to grow up healthy, for Leo to be healthy,” Youssef said, as he hugged his daughter. “No matter how bad we have got it, we know that someone else has it worse.”

Keeping with their positive attitudes and faith in God, and looking for a new adventure that would share Leo’s passion for food, she said, “Let’s open a Taqueria.” In 2015, Rita’s Taqueria opened in Temple.

“When you watch natural disasters, accidents and stuff on TV, any bad thing that happens in life, you say, Wow. But you don’t see it until it happens to you,” said Youssef. “Once it happens to you, you realize not to get attached to anything material in your life, just your family. There is no guarantee for tomorrow, just live the moment and make sure you do good with God and with people so when things like that happen, it comes back to you in a good way.”

Catherine Hosman is editor of Tex Appeal Magazine. Contact her at editor@texappealmag.com or 54-501-7511.

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