Hard to believe. Believe but not understand. Luis Aguilar is selling El Pueblo, his restaurant in Lamont.
Not just selling but leaving the restaurant business after 35 years. Done. No más.
A standing ovation is appropriate. Thirty-five years, thousands of nights, and, if the nights weren’t rigorous enough, consider the days that make this journey a double marathon, one enchilada suiza at a time. Even tough, sturdy, passionate guys like Luis need a breather once every four decades.
I saw Luis at Luigi’s a few days ago. He told me he was selling and he also told me he was 70, which I guess he thought I might believe.
I said "no way" — especially to the 70 part. Energy like his does not age.
Whatever got into his head to think he could open a restaurant in Lamont in the first place? I have nothing against Lamont, I like the town and it’s close to Weedpatch, another one of my favorites, but it’s not exactly a restaurant mecca and more importantly, Lamont is 23 miles from Bakersfield.
Bakersfield is pretty formidable when it comes to Mexican restaurants. There are bunches of them and when Luis opened El Jacalito 35 years ago in an old building, competition in the Southern San Joaquin was fierce if not downright frightening.
Somebody forgot to tell Luis to be scared. You could have told him but he wouldn’t have listened. Luis was determined.
One of 14 kids, he’d come to California from Michoacan, Mexico, in 1968 (he was deported five times) and ended up in Fontana working as a janitor in a restaurant. A job at an El Torito in Thousand Oaks led to a transfer to the same restaurant in Bakersfield. Luis and his wife, Jackie, moved to Lamont in 1981.
Then, he and his brothers Solomon and Rafael came up with the bright idea of opening a Mexican restaurant in a sea of Mexican restaurants.
A strange thing happened, however, on the way to bankruptcy court. El Jacalito became a raging success, the restaurant was packed and had lines out the doors. Customers came from Bakersfield and eventually L.A. and beyond.
The food was tasty, fresh and served on oval plates that looked big enough to land a small plane. The margaritas were off the charts and would straighten your spine if you came in slouching. My forever memory of Luis will be him walking around the restaurant with a blender topping off glasses whether they needed topping or not.
Luis was a showman, he was good with people, remembered names, ran a mean kitchen and worked like the immigrant he was.
In 1992, the owners of the building took it back and Luis opened El Pueblo down the street next to a motel. When he was turned down by every bank in the free world, farmer Arnold Cattani loaned him the money. El Pueblo’s success has rivaled El Jacalito’s.
The seasons are changing. Luis wants to take Abbee, his 3-year-old adopted granddaughter, to school, spend more time with Jackie, his wife of 32 years and mother to their four children, and redouble his efforts with their mission trips to San Jose de Gracia in Michoacan, Mexico, where they have been donating medical equipment, ambulances and fire trucks for the last 20 years.
Last Tuesday, we drove to Lamont for lunch. I recognized one waiter who said he’d been there 29 years. Our waitress called Sue “My lady,” and me, a “gentleman,” which was nice but a stretch.
The chips were hot, salty and fresh. We ordered extra crispy Cancun shrimp for the table that went bye-bye quick.
The menu said you could mix, match, do anything you wanted without being charged extra. I did, coupling an enchilada suiza with a shredded beef taco.
Thomas ordered a Pacifico beer and the waitress delivered the beer and a large frosty mug. Thomas was happy. We were too.
The restaurateur wants to thank his longtime customers; his forever employees like Blanca Yanes (23 years), Federico Castillo (24 years), Rafael Martinez (29 years) and Jovita Carrillo (26 years); and the rest of the team.
Luis, take a bow too. Let the ovation begin.