(If you are reading this post on a RSS reader, you might want to click through to Life Begins @ 30 for the slideshow.
As we entered the Taco House last week, I steadied my grandfather on my arm. "The taco is $1.29," he said. "When I bought the Taco House, we sold it for 25 cents." Two women in front of the restaurant became really animated when they saw him. "You know who I just met," one exclaimed into her cell phone, "I met Bill. You know THE Bill."
My grandfather's name is Hank Silva, but in the Los Angeles community he is often known as "Bill". He bought Bill's Taco House in 1960 from the original Bill who had owned it for eleven years. Grandpa owned the restaurant for 25 years and many of his customers just assumed his name was Bill. He never corrected them.
The story that led my grandfather to own the Taco House is a real up-by-your-bootstraps, American-way story. He grew up very poor -- moving around, but mainly in the Central Valley -- and went to school very sporadically only through elementary school. During some of his youth, he picked fruit and cotton up and down the Central Valley -- figs, prunes, rhubarb, and strawberries. When the workers would break for lunch, grandpa and his best friend Tony would pretend that they were going to lunch as well. But they didn't have any money and didn't eat. When lunch was over, they would come back to the field, chewing on a toothpick and pretending that their bellies were full from the feast that they'd just eaten.
In 1939, grandpa had a small amount of money saved and felt that he was destined for something greater than ranch work. He wanted to leave the valley, but didn't know where to go. "San Francisco or Los Angeles," he told his friend Tony at the bus station. Grandpa had been waffling about which direction to go. "Just go buy me a ticket to either place." Tony chose Los Angeles. "You're going to Hollywood," Tony told grandpa, in a decision that was pivotal for grandpa's life and the future of our family.
Grandpa met my grandmother in 1945 (a great story for another day), served in the Navy in World War II, and then returned home to support his family. He held many jobs including working at a bra factory (where grandma worked as well), selling Baby Butler children's furniture, and selling tract homes in Riverside County. In the late fifties he was working at a trucking company and had an accident -- he fell from the dock and injured his elbow. The insurance company compensated him for his injury by giving him $10,000 (the equivalent of $69,000 today).
That $10,000 insurance check is the money that grandpa used to buy the Taco House. The restaurant is on Martin Luther King Blvd. in Los Angeles, about a mile east of USC. "We were open until four a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays," mom recently told me, "and there would be a line down the block after the clubs in the area let out." The taco that they were all lining up for is, what I could imagine, the perfect drunk food. It's greasy and full of spices and a fully craveable meal.
Every once in a while, someone who had just been released from jail would come into the Taco House because they'd been craving Taco House food in the slammer. Celebrities also came into the Taco House -- sometimes limos would pull up and people like Barry White and the singers of the Fifth Dimension would come in to get their taco fix. Many people who grew up in the neighborhood and became successful -- singers, boxers, politicians -- would continue to return to Bill's Taco House. "I remember when Barry White was coming in and no one knew who he was," grandpa told me recently, "and then he kept coming back when he was famous."
Recently on a trip to the Taco House alone, I tried to assess the taco. It's a seasoned hamburger patty, grilled and cut into three pieces, with a slice of cheese ("What kind of cheese, Grandpa?" "Yellow cheese."), diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and a spicy chili gravy all wrapped with a fried taco shell that is more soft than crunchy but with a fried flavor. Today's taco is pretty true to the original recipe, and the one that grandpa used. I laughed the other day at a user review on the Internet recently that called it "good Mexican food." I agree more with a different user who called it "good junk food."
"We would get a delivery of fresh ground beef every day," grandpa said on the drive home last week, "and on Saturdays, we would order 500 pounds of beef." Each taco uses less than a quarter of a pound of beef, so that's a heck of a lot of tacos.
Grandpa was really well known in the community. It's still a treat to run into people who went to Bill's as kids in the sixties and seventies and talk to them about what they remember. Aside from selling popular food, he provided the land for a Head Start school next door to the Taco House that is there to this day, and gave back to the community in many other ways. When the Watts riots occurred in 1965, neighbors urged grandpa to leave as the riots were breaking out, and spray painted "brother" on the wall of the Taco House. The Taco House was saved from being burned or looted while businesses all around were destroyed.
Grandpa sold the Taco House in 1985. It's still in existence, and in fact there are now one or two other "Bill's Taco Houses" around town, though I have never been to them.
It's hard to know where our family would be had grandpa not come to Los Angeles, or had he not owned the Taco House. Much of the family -- my mom, my uncle, my godmother, my grandmother and even my dad -- worked at the Taco House at one point or another and it's a major part of our family history. My grandparents have taught me so many life lessons, but grandpa's ownership of the Taco House taught me some big ones:
- Make people happy by giving them good, honest food.
- Treat them with respect, no matter what their background or social status.
- Intuition and real world experience trump formal education.
- Once you have a dream, work and work and work until you see it to fruition.
The original Bill's Taco House is located at 219 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-233-1587.
(Update, 10/3/07: Check out my uncle's comment in the comments section. A great addition to the story.)