Earlier this week, my favorite taqueria in Pleasant Hill burned down after a fire in the attic. I've eaten at El Tapatio at least fifty times in my life, so it's sad to know it's now merely a burned-out shell of its former self.
El Tapatio was located only a few blocks from our high school, across the street from Diablo Valley College. That shopping center was nowhere near upscale. Some saw the whole center as only a shortcut to the more expansive mini-mall behind Golf Club Road, which featured a Safeway, a Baskin-Robbins, a Round Table, and a McDonald's. However, the center had two of the most important restaurants of my formative years, El Tapatio and Chef Burger. El Tapatio was for the afternoons, and Chef Burger was for breakfast and late-night dining. Our visits to Chef Burger grew so frequent that one friend eventually created a pager code that simply meant, "I'm at Chef Burger", like a late-90s version of the bat signal. (For the record, the code was 777-187).
Thankfully, the fire was contained at El Tapatio, and did only minor damage to its neighbor, Kelly-Moore Paints. As far as I know, Chef Burger was unharmed, but the bizarrely-named Little Galloping Treasures Coffee Shop may have some smoke damage.
Before I started going to El Tapatio, I rarely ate Mexican food. My parents never took us to Taco Bell. The most south-of-the-border cuisine we'd experience was when Mom and Dad got the mega-bag of tortilla chips from Costco. It was freshman year of high school when I first discovered the finest taqueria in the Greater Pacheco area, if not all of Contra Costa County, Los Panchos. While Panchos made a huge and delicious burrito, it wasn't a place where one could sit down and have a meal. Chances are, you were going to consume that burrito outdoors.
El Tapatio was classy. It had comfortable leather booths, air conditioning, and cocktails. I went there for the first time after some kind of Drama Department activity, along with my friends Cody, Dan, and Ashley. I remember that Dan ordered the virgin strawberry margarita that first day. When I visited El Tap as a legal 21-year-old, I ordered a real strawberry margarita, and it just didn't seem right.
The wait staff was always unflinchingly polite and well-dressed, for what appeared to be a family operation. I was served by perhaps four different waiters over a five-year span. After a while, I never even opened a menu. I knew what I wanted.
I always got the Tapatio Lunch Special, and nearly always chose a pork burrito. You got an enormous burrito, beans, rice, AND two tortillas with this order, all for a heavy discount, if you ordered it before 3 pm. My friend Dustin also ordered that every time. We didn't realize it in the pre-9/11 era, but we were pre-emptively declaring our patriotism through swine consumption. When Dustin and I would re-visit El Tap after being away for months, it was always embarrassing to leave a half-eaten burrito, when in our primes it would have been fully devoured in half the time.
El Tapatio served two kinds of salsa. One was tasty but mild - your standard red gringo tortilla condiment. The other variety was green, and extremely spicy. Granted, I didn't eat much Mexican food, or much spicy food at all before I started going to El Tap. However, this green salsa was so spicy that one chip dipped in the stuff put my taste buds out of commission for the remainder of the meal. Even after I'd gone to college and started eating more piquant foods, the green salsa was still too much for me.
The salsa became an initiation rite for when I brought new people to the restaurant. Once, I offered my sister's boyfriend ten bucks if he could eat the entire container of green salsa (He got through one spoonful before quitting.). Typically, we'd sit back and let the newbie try the green salsa on his own. Sometimes we'd pretend to dip chips in the toxic green, to sucker the rube further. Then we'd wait as the n00b tried to hide his sweating, water-guzzling, and tears before pointing and laughing.
This did not work on our friend Long-Hai. Perhaps because of his Vietnamese parents and childhood exposure to curry powder, Long-Hai did not find the green stuff especially spicy. He did find it delicious, however.
For years, El Tapatio had a large banner advertising its Sunday Champagne Brunch. The banner had been printed out on a dot matrix printer, likely no later than 1987. Often while dining at El Tap, sitting under the banner, we considered buying them a real sign. Hell, we could walk two storefronts over to R Computer and print out a replacement sign there. Still, we never did, probably because we ended each meal in food-induced semi-comas.
In later years, El Tapatio began chasing other revenue streams. They still had machines to dispense candy or stickers near the door, plus the small display for anti-DUI chewing gum, but they needed more. So they began selling ad space on top of their tables. It was a strange dining experience, with local realtors Don and Norma Flaskerud stared up from the table. It's the only restaurant I've been to that featured tabletop ads, though one of the ads on El Tap's tables assured diners that this would be advertising's future.
I hadn't been to El Tap in quite some time, but it's tragic to think that I never will again. The owner has vowed to rebuild, but fire inspectors have called the damage a "total loss". If they rebuild it, I'll be in line at the grand re-opening, particularly if it's before 3:30 and I can still get the discount on the Lunch Special.