By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Feb 20, 2012 at 9:01 AM

When Linda Mulholland and her husband, Jan, started their own business four years ago, they decided to go for the whole enchilada. Actually, many enchiladas.

Their Cocina DeLeon in the Galleria West shopping center on Bluemound Road in Brookfield fits into a small and uncommon dining industry niche – take and bake Mexican food. The Mulhollands specialize in gourmet enchiladas, offering 11 different varieties made in their commercial kitchen and sold frozen to customers.

The business began in the kitchen of their Brookfield home and now operates out of the Galleria West storefront. They also do catering and have begun wholesaling the enchiladas to a small number of selected grocery stores.

Cocina DeLeon's roots go back to Monterrey, Mexico, the hometown of Linda Mulholland's mother, who emigrated to the U.S. when she was 23. Growing up in Bloomington, Ill., Linda learned to cook at her mother's elbow.

The family packed the car every summer and drove to Monterrey for a monthlong stay. There Linda learned more about Mexican cuisine from aunts and uncles. "Everything was from scratch, and every ingredient was natural," she said during a morning chat at her Brookfield store.

With a home and family of her own, Mulholland, who is a free lance writer, enjoyed giving dinner parties, and she always served enchiladas made from her mom's recipes. Guests raved and urged her to sell them.

A confluence of factors four years ago made Cocina DeLeon happen. The Mulhollands' 17-year-old son, Andrew, has cerebral palsy, and Linda had long thought about establishing a business that would employ him when he was finished with school.

"The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 78%," she said. Linda writes a monthly column for Metro Parent magazine about raising children with disabilities.

Jan Mulholland lost his job as a top executive of a Franklin firm during the financial crash. The couple decided to sink their life savings into making enchiladas.

Cocina DeLeon began with sales to friends and acquaintances. That soon expanded into selling at farmer's markets, which by law required moving operations into a rented commercial kitchen. The enchiladas were becoming so popular, customers were knocking on the facility's door, asking to buy them straight out of the kitchen.

"Health department regulations did not permit the public to enter the kitchen, so we couldn't let people step inside," Linda said. "We had to pass the food out to them, and they handed us cash."

Two years ago Cocina DeLeon moved into a Galleria West space that allows them to have the kitchen side by side with an attractive retail store. One wall of the shop is lined with freezers containing pans of the different enchilada varieties. About 2,000 enchiladas are sold every week.

Three types of beef enchiladas – ground, slow cooked pulled and hormone-free grass fed – are offered along with such enchilada standards as chicken, pulled pork, and cheese and onion. The menu then stretches to the unusual and the downright exotic.

Cocina DeLeon does a big business with families seeking quick and easy meals, and the spinach-bean enchiladas are "oddly popular with toddlers," Mulholland reported. "Parents come in and tell me that. I have no idea why small children like them, but they are getting their vegetables."

Shrimp and chorizo are combined in an enchilada, and Mulholland is personally fond of the bacon and cheese variety. "I love Nueske's bacon, and I wanted to make an enchilada that contains it. I eat the bacon and cheese enchilada with scrambled eggs for breakfast," she reported.

The most unconventional offering is the Manchilada, containing ribeye steak and blue cheese. "My mother balked at that," Mulholland said with a laugh. "She said you don't put blue cheese in enchiladas.

"I finally got her to taste it, and she gave it a green light."

All of the enchilada fillings and the accompanying red sauce are made from scratch. "We don't cut corners, Cocina DeLeon's owner said. "We make everything by hand.

"We grate the cheese by hand. We could buy the cheese already grated, but then it contains anti-caking agents.

"We use only free-range chicken breasts. I believe you can taste the difference when you start cutting corners. Our enchiladas taste like you have a Mexican mother in your kitchen."

Mulholland uses El Rey corn tortillas for the enchiladas, and everything she produces is gluten free.

Enchiladas are sold in quantities of two, six, ten and eighteen. Prices for two range from $5.50 for cheese and onion to $9 for the Manchilada.

Cocina DeLeon's menu is slowing expanding beyond enchiladas to include stuffed peppers, two types of meat loaf with typically Mexican spices, salsa, guacamole, and sweet and savory empanadas. The sweet combine chocolate and dulce de leche (caramel).

El Rey tamales are also sold in the store. Mulholland said she didn't want the labor-intensive task of making them herself.

"I had my mom taste the El Rey tamales. They are very similar to my family's recipe. It's a northern Mexican recipe," she said.

Fresh pork carnitas made in the Cocina kitchen for tacos is also available.

In addition to the sweet empanada, Cocina DeLeon sells fresh brownies made with Mexican cinnamon and a bit of chile de arbol for some heat. Chocolate-cinnamon and Mexican wedding cake cookies are also occasionally available and can always be special ordered.

Puerto Rican baker Irma Ferrari makes flan, tres leches cake and a chile-spiced flourless chocolate cake on 48-hour advance notice. Those items are often stocked in the store during the holidays. Purple Door Ice Cream is developing a dulce de leche flavor for the Mulhollands.

Cocina DeLeon does a small fresh food carry-out business centered on a soup and single-item special every day. "We are not restaurateurs, we are business people, and I don't want to operate a restaurant, but we have people, mostly from area shops, who come in here looking for lunch," Mulholland explained. She also caters events of up to 200 persons.

The Cocina's enchiladas can currently be found at Metcalfe's Market on 67th and State, Good Harvest in Pewaukee and Settler's Park Market in West Bend. Outpost Natural Foods' three locations will stock them by the end of the week, according to Mulholland.

The business is at an interesting point in its development. Expansion beckons, and it could go in several directions.

"People ask me, are you going to franchise? I don't know," Mulholland said. She and her husband could open more stores on their own, and they have not scratched the surface of the potential in wholesaling their products to supermarkets.

"At the moment, we have a nice little store. It's profitable. We give three other people employment," Linda said.

"I don't want to lose our focus, which is making high quality, gourmet Mexican food."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.