In Bakersfield, where one rarely has to drive more than a mile to find good Mexican food, few could have imagined that a middle-aged immigrant from China would blend flavors from two disparate cultures to create a taco that would attract untold numbers of repeat customers for more than three decades.
David Jiu, founder and proprietor of Dave's Tacos, a business that operated out of a used taco truck before finding a permanent location on Chester Avenue, died Sunday at his home in central Bakersfield. He was 77.
Jiu had struggled for a few years with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart problems, said his son, Ed Jiu.
"He passed in his sleep," he said.
Hundreds of friends on the restaurant's Facebook page left heartfelt condolences, many laced with recollections of how Jiu's mysteriously delicious tacos -- and the man himself -- somehow became a part of the stories of their lives.
"He always remembered your name and he always remembered your order," recalled Dennis Lackey, 44, of Bakersfield, who began driving south to Pumpkin Center in 1989 or 1990, when Jiu would park his truck in front of a tire shop on Taft Highway and feed the hungry bar crowds after 2 a.m.
Long before the food truck trend took hold in Los Angeles, Jiu's modest taco wagon was drawing lines of hungry customers willing to wait 30, 40, even 60 minutes, Lackey said, just to get a plate of Dave's hot, spicy tacos, the small-tortilla variety that tasted unlike any taco anywhere else.
"We followed him everywhere," Lackey said.
Over the years, Jiu moved his truck to various locations, including in front of his home near P Street. Later he parked near Chester, north of the Garces Circle, and also cooked in the parking lot of La Bonita Tortillas on East California Avenue, the business that supplied Dave's with most of its ingredients.
"We served them from Day One," La Bonita owner Albert Ornelas said of Jiu's taco business. "It turned from a working relationship into a friendship.
"Dave was a very low-key guy," Ornelas said. "He was never out in the limelight, and yet he's got this loyal following. It's incredible."
Jiu's mystique began with the tacos themselves. Their elusive fusion of flavors married Tex-Mex cuisine with an Asian twist, a secret combination that many tried to pry, without success, from the mind of the entrepreneur.
"My friends and I would have Dave's Tacos parties, where we would try to duplicate the flavors," Ornelas recalled. "Did he add brown sugar? Tomatillos? We never figured it out."
They weren't alone in their frustration.
"To this day I have friends trying to copy that recipe," Lackey said. "They've gone so far as to try to find out what kind of meat he uses, what he puts in his sauce."
One tantalizing clue was always out in the open: A bottle of oyster sauce stood like a sentinel in Jiu's cramped little kitchen, always visible but remaining tightly capped.
Born in China in 1936, Jiu came to the United States in 1970 or 1971. No one in the family is sure of the exact year, said Ed Jiu, who is 35. Nor are they sure what part of China their father came from or what year he married Anna, his wife since 1972, or possibly 1973.
"My dad kept his background private," Jiu said.
For some years, the elder Jiu worked in the grocery business in Pumpkin Center. But that business was up against tough competition and eventually began to fail. So in 1982, Jiu bought a Mexican food truck from a man who was apparently ready to move into an easier line of work.
"The man taught him how to make tacos -- nowhere near what they are now," Jiu said.
The budding entrepreneur didn't like them, so he added "his own little kick to it," the younger Jiu said.
Originally called David's Mexican Food, the name of the truck -- and the menu, too -- was soon simplified to Dave's Tacos. Jiu never looked back.
"It's got a little Asian flair to it," said his son, who, along with his three siblings, worked for the family business.
One of the principles that helped form the business came directly from his father's faith in the inherent goodness of people, Jiu said.
It wasn't unusual for struggling students or working people to show up at the taco stand with a only a dollar or two and an empty belly.
"If the person didn't have money, he'd give them personal credit," Jiu said of his dad. "He was old school. He believed your word was your bond."
At the first of the month, indebted customers would show up with the $50 or $100 to repay him.
Sure they were burned more than once. But most people paid when they could.
A few years ago, San Joaquin Community Hospital tried to buy their restaurant property at 2600 Chester Ave. in order to build a new cancer center and medical complex along the east side of Chester between 26th and 28th streets. The Jiu family decided to stay put. The cancer center was built without obtaining their property.
"It's a landmark," Jiu said. "It's the first place we were permanent, our first real home."
And now it's a legacy. It's a reminder of a man who came to a strange country, built a business and a family, and touched a lot of people along the way.
"As small as he was physically, he did not have that mentality," Lackey said. "He was a big man. He was awesome."
In addition to his son, Jiu is survivied by his wife, Anna; son David Jr.; daughters Betty and Annie; and three grandchildren.
A viewing will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Greenlawn Southwest. Funeral services are private.