Good waitresses know what you want, but legendary waitresses like Marcy Camacho at El Sombrero? They know what you need, even when you don't.
"When we'd come in, she'd have a couple of margaritas prepared for us," said 20-year regular Keith Brogan over a chicken enchilada, rice and beans at lunchtime Monday.
"Even if we didn't think we wanted them, she could tell by looking at us that it was that kind of day and we'd say, 'OK.' And she would be right."
Camacho was an institution at the M Street Mexican restaurant, where she worked for 42 years before her death Feb. 7 from complications of a recently discovered brain tumor. She was 78.
In honor of its beloved waitress, the restaurant will do something Thursday that, with the exception of major holidays, it has never done before: Take the day off.
"This is good to close for her memory, so our employees can pay their respects at her funeral," said Ramiro Gonzalez, El Sombrero's owner, who met Camacho decades ago in night class at Bakersfield High School.
"We're all family here."
Camacho's actual family visited the restaurant Monday, the first time since the death of their matriarch. Grandson Anthony Castro said it took a couple of tries before he made it inside, on through to the small foyer that contains a funeral wreath of daisies, carnations and baby's breath, along with a pair of pictures that show two sides of his grandma: glammed up with a black feather boa in a recent shot, and there in her waitress uniform in an older photo. Her personality was so big, its absence is painfully obvious, he said.
"She was filled with love and laughter. You notice her missing."
Castro and his family tried to convey in a few adjectives what made Camacho so special: Independent. Family-oriented. Funny. Strong. Bubbly. A little fussy about her appearance, keeping a weekly Saturday morning hair appointment with her daughter, Anna, a stylist.
"Someone said in the hospital that she looks so great," said her daughter. "We were like, yeah, well she had her eyebrows tattooed and eyeliner, too!"
She also was a great dancer — anytime, anywhere, even at work, and especially if Juan Gabriel or Vicente Fernandez came on the radio. On that subject, Minnie Gonzalez, who runs El Sombrero with her father, offered an evaluation of Camacho's moves: "Like the quote says, 'Her hips don’t lie.' Shakira didn’t have anything on Marcy!"
But it was her devoted nature that her family, co-workers, bosses and customers all credited for making Camacho a super-waitress — and super-human being.
She raised her four children and three of her grandchildren on her own, often putting work first, her family said. But no one's bitter. It was a good lesson, her daughters say, and there was always time for Sunday dinner, when she would whip up a batch of her famous menudo and her signature rice — always fluffy and light, even when made in bulk. Her barbecues could get so packed it seemed she was feeding her whole Heritage Park neighborhood in east Bakersfield.
"I remember somebody took a bunch of food home with them, and I was mad," said grandson Rayner Artiaga Jr. "She told me, 'You never be stingy with food.'"
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Camacho arrived in the United States with her parents in 1959. They quickly became citizens, said her daughter, Anna Castro. Before long, Camacho began her long career in restaurants, first at Mexicali, working for the Gamez family.
"They did help her a lot at the time," said Maria Zepeda, Camacho's daughter, of the Mexicali owners. "She started working as a cook and became the head cook."
In 1967, her old friend Gonzalez, tired of his job at Pacific Southern Foundry, took out a Bank of America loan and, with his savings and wife's recipes, opened El Sombrero, originally located at the Garces Circle near where the Elks Lodge is today. Around the time he moved to his present location, he offered Camacho the job of head waitress.
"I said that's the lady I need to help me build El Sombrero," said Gonzalez, 79. "She was a beautiful lady. She knew mostly everyone by name."
And their orders (fun fact: NASCAR star and Bakersfield native Kevin Harvick gets two cheese enchiladas and a bean and cheese burrito when he's in town).
"Every visit started with a hug," said customer Brogan, who plans to attend Camacho's funeral.
"We knew where she was from in Mexico, and she knew our kids' names."
Though Minnie Gonzalez had cut back Camacho's hours recently — a concession to her age — the senior waitress worked until Dec. 22, the day before her family rushed her to the hospital when she appeared dazed and out of it.
"When we called 911, the fireman came in and said, 'Marcy?' He was a customer," daughter Zepeda recalled.
A Los Angeles neurosurgeon recommended surgery to remove the tumor, but Camacho's condition deteriorated and she lost some of her spark, her family said — except when she talked about returning to work.
"When the owner and his son visited her, when they were talking to her, she lit up," said Camacho's daughter, Anna Castro. "Other people went over, and she didn't respond. She was so devoted to them and this place."
Though the Gonzalez family mourns today, they're looking ahead to April, the 50th anniversary month of El Sombrero, which opened in 1967 as El Sombrero Spanish Food (a purposeful miscategorization of the cuisine commonly used decades ago when Americans — even Californians! — were ignorant that the enchiladas and tacos they loved came not from Europe but south of the border).
The Gonzalezes are proud to note that El Sombrero is the rare example of a long-standing family-run restaurant. Ramiro Gonzalez and his wife, Lucille, have largely handed off day-to-day operations to daughter Minnie Gonzalez, but her brother, Jesse, and sister, Erlinda, also are involved, as are the Gonzalez grandchildren.
"I wanted to retire," said Ramiro Gonzalez. "I don't want to die at the restaurant. I want to die at home, happy."
And though the restaurant has lost its longest-serving employee in Marcy Camacho, this is a place that puts stock in seniority. Server Jesus Ovando has been at El Sombrero 27 years, and cook Jose Ventura has been whipping up specialties — try the chile verde burrito — for 30 years.
"I do what I do and my boss is not bugging me," Ventura said.
Despite not wanting to die on the job, Gonzalez still flits in and out of El Sombrero six days a week to keep his staff on their toes.
"I surprise them through the back door," he laughed. "I want to catch them in the act! I tell them if I want to get rid of customers, I'll get rid of them; I don't need your help."