Sunday, June 12, 2011

Farewell, La Fiesta

Introduction

My favorite Mexican restaurant—actually, come to think of it, my favorite restaurant, period—closed recently after almost fifty-three years in business. This was Mario’s La Fiesta (quick, visit their old website while it’s still up!), which Mario and Rosalinda Tejada started up in 1959 and ran continuously throughout its life. In the twenty years I ate there, nothing changed—the recipes were never so much as tinkered with. It was like the perfect enchanted restaurant. But now it’s been sold to a new owner, which is to say it has utterly ceased to exist.

In this post I provide some fond memories, some photos, much reflection, and my take on the restaurant that has taken—I mean, tried to take—the place of Mario’s La Fiesta.

The horror

Before I get into all the good stuff about La Fiesta, I need to impress on you how devastating its closure was for me. Discovering that it was gone, replaced by another Mexican restaurant, was like getting hit in the stomach with a medicine ball—no, make that a wrecking ball.

On Memorial Day, I drove over to La Fiesta with my wife, my mom, and my two daughters, and dropped them off, then went to park the car. As I walked past People’s Park toward the restaurant, I was surprised to see my family standing out front—they were supposed to be inside scarfing chips and salsa. They all had strange smiles on their faces: not happy smiles, but the shocked, strained smiles of somebody trying to be stoic. They didn’t say anything. “What are you waiting for, let’s go!” I said. “Look at the sign,” my wife Erin told me. I looked. It said “Remy’s.” This meant nothing. Somebody put up a sign in the wrong place, I figured. I immediately put it out of my mind.

Actually, I’d already ignored two other pieces of information signaling La Fiesta’s demise. First, that morning when I looked up their phone number online (to call ahead and make sure they were open on the holiday) the first Google hit I saw was “Mario’s La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant – CLOSED.” I disregarded this, figuring it was leftover news about the restaurant leaving its original location a couple years ago. Then, when I phoned, it sounded like the person who answered said something other than “Mario’s” or “La Fiesta,” but I ignored this, too, figuring I just didn’t hear her right, over the background noise. I was in complete denial.

Realizing now that I wasn’t getting the message, Erin spelled it out for me: “Dana, La Fiesta is gone! It’s been sold!” I froze. I felt a huge disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. For several eternal seconds I was completely paralyzed. “It’s okay,” Erin continued, “your mom went and asked, and they said it was the same menu.”

It was not okay. I have thought long and hard about how to express the feeling of loss and betrayal that washed over me. The best I can do is this: imagine that you’re a kid returning home from summer camp, and when you walk in the front door, there’s a strange women standing there. Your dad appears at her side and says, “While you were away, I divorced your mother and remarried. But don’t worry, you’ll like your new mom just fine. She’s a lot like your old mom—look, she can even wear your mom’s clothes!”

We sat down and were given menus that said “Remy’s” at the top. I suppose if the menu were the same physical menu I’d held in my hand during my last La Fiesta visit, with a mailing label with “Remy’s” written in ball-point stuck over the old name, I’d have been okay. But it was a new menu with the new name and was like a slap in the face. “We have a special today,” said the waitress brightly. “It’s your own heart. We cut it out when you came in the door.”

(I suppose the news would have been a little easier to take had I known in advance of La Fiesta’s demise. I would have liked to have one last meal there before it was all over. A Chowhounder posted Mario’s farewell letter here.)

Fond memories

As with many of La Fiesta’s customers, I first started going there in college. For me, that meant 1990. I lived far from campus, so the restaurant was handy, and it was really the only place I could afford. I was close to flat broke most of the time in those days; I remember once having to deposit a few dollars in cash into my checking account so my rent check would clear. My standard La Fiesta meal was a side of beans ($0.80), a side of rice ($0.80), and a side of flour tortillas ($0.50). Even with a huge tip, I was out the door for $3.

Despite my minimalist order, I got the free chips and Marios fantastic, fiery homemade salsa. They had at least half a dozen different salsas that they’d rotate, two or three at a time. The sides would come arranged on a big plate with a liberal amount of melted cheese on the beans, and a little pile of lettuce. It was enough to make two decent-sized burritos, and—due to the lard in the beans—was both delicious and filling. It probably doesn’t sound like much of a meal but that’s the amazing thing about that place. I would practically whimper with pleasure. It’s hard to describe how good it was without resorting to profanity.

After I moved to San Francisco and got married, my wife and I would make the trip to Berkeley just to eat at La Fiesta. For a few years we didn’t have a car and would Bart all the way out. Naturally such a trip called for a more lavish meal, and I wasn’t broke anymore, so I’d spring for the combination plate. Here’s one of my favorites: chicken enchilada, chile relleno, chicken flauta, rice and beans, and (not shown) a side of tortillas.

Counting the extra sour cream from Erin’s plate (you can see it coming in from the right), we’re talking about probably 3,000 calories of pure goodness, for about $10. Frankly, I’d have paid far more than that, and now I’d pay almost anything.

In 2000, Erin and I moved back to the East Bay, and for our housewarming party ordered from the La Fiesta “Large Party Take-Out Menu.” I phoned in the order, and at the end of the call I asked for the name of the person I was speaking with. “This is Mario,” he replied. I was stunned. “You mean, the Mario!?” I asked. It was. I felt like I’d just met a rock star. I’d seen Mario before, as I was heading down Haste Street at the end of an early morning bike ride, and he was crossing the street with a giant box of fresh produce. And when I picked up my Large Party Take-Out order, I got to meet Mario in person for the first time.

I’d ordered what I figured would be enough for fifty or so people. It totally filled my Volvo wagon, even with the seats down. As several friends and I brought the food in from the car, one of them said, “Dana, I’ve never seen you so happy.” It was more than enough food; in fact, the leftovers filled my freezer, which is about as good as it gets. The cost for this dazzling amount of food? $260: a stunning value. Over the years I bought La Fiesta take-out for three more giant parties. Here’s a shot from the most recent one:

When our first child, Alexa, was born, La Fiesta became our go-to restaurant because it was loud enough to be kid-friendly, and the waitress would give us a window seat in the corner that had a little shelf for the baby’s car-seat. We’d set Alexa up in a high-chair (the old-school kind with a built-in tray), and actually have some peace so long as we fed her rice and beans almost continuously. On one occasion, though, she kept bursting out crying between bites, though I was going as fast as I could, spooning beans directly from Erin’s plate into Alexa’s mouth. Finally I said to Erin, “I wonder why she keeps crying!” Erin said, “Wait—are you giving her my beans?” I fessed up. “Well no wonder she’s crying!” Erin said. “I mixed a whole bunch of salsa into those beans!”

La Fiesta became a standard outing whenever I had friends or family visiting. Here are Bradley and my brother Geoff, enjoying a four-item combo that won’t even fit on one plate. Note the ‘70s-era plastic cups and the various salsas.

Here’s my nephew John tucking into an enchilada. Behind him are the car-seats of his little sister and one of my kids. John starts college in the fall.

My brother Geoff moved to the Netherlands in 1993. Whenever he came to visit, La Fiesta was of course mandatory, despite the fact that his family—being Dutch—didn’t necessarily enjoy spicy food. On one trip, I asked his wife, “Does it bother you that we always eat Mexican food when you’re out, even though it’s spicier than you’d like?” She replied, “It doesn’t bother me, because I know if Geoff doesn’t get it, he’ll die.” When I phoned Geoff today to give him the bad news about La Fiesta, he was just finishing a dinner of tacos. (He has to make everything from scratch, even the tortillas and salsa, because none of the ingredients are available over there.) I asked if he still had his La Fiesta t-shirt. “It just so happens I’m wearing it right now,” he said, and sent me over this photo.

My brother isn’t the only expatriate who missed La Fiesta. One of the last times I ate there, my family happened to be seated right next to Mario and Rosalinda, who were enjoying a quiet early dinner. We got to talking, and Mario recounted how a family living in Europe heard that La Fiesta was moving (just across the street, into the former banquet space), and changed their flights so they could arrive in time for one last meal in the original location.

How many times did I eat at La Fiesta? It’s impossible to say, because when I ate there the most often—in college—they didn’t take credit cards, so no paper-trail exists. They started taking credit cards in mid-2004, and I have record of forty visits since then. I had my albertnet intern, Alexa, crunch the numbers and she estimates I’ve eaten there about 145½ times.

Factoring in that it was practically the only restaurant I ever went to during college, and that on occasion friends or family have treated me there, I’m guessing the real total is well over 200.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mario’s La Fiesta was its constancy. In a world where corporations are constantly pandering to shareholders, forever reorganizing themselves and taking over competitors in a tireless effort to grow continuously, Mario and his family always knew they had a good thing and saw no need to change it. Whereas so many people value only ambition, Mario was wise enough to know contentment isn’t a failing.

The wait staff must have felt the same way, because it seemed like the same waiters for the whole twenty years I ate there. And they looked to be the same age as when they served me as in college, which made me feel like I could still be that college kid. To eat at La Fiesta was to deny the march of time: those waiters and I, we will never get old. We will never die.

The food

There is so much to say about the food at La Fiesta. I offer a full report in a separate blog post, a “from the archives” tale from an e-mail I sent to my bike club in 2006 (it was a restaurant review masquerading as a bike race report). Click here for this tribute to La Fiesta’s food.

I should, however, take a moment here to talk about Mario’s soup. Anybody who cooks a lot of chickens really ought to boil the carcasses to make a good stock, and this was standard practice at La Fiesta. All the entrees came with this soup, which was a simple broth with potatoes, carrots, and tiny star-shaped pasta (the shape of which always reminded me of sponge spicules). Erin and I used to fight over this soup with our kids, whose à la carte grilled burritos didn’t come with it, but then the waiters noticed and, without ever having been asked, took to bringing the kids soup anyway. I always meant to try the soup without eating any salsa first, to get its full flavor without my mouth being on fire. But hot soup in a mouth-on-fire was pretty much a tradition unto itself.

Does Remy’s stack up?

Of course not. Let me count the ways. First and foremost, the new management installed three flat-screen TVs in there, one of them giant, all of them showing sports. There’s so much wrong with this. First of all, the TVs are sleek and modern so they make me feel like I’m in an airport. Second, I draw a distinct line between eating and watching TV. For me, the two activities do not belong together to begin with, much less when you’re occupying a restaurant with such a rich history of actual dining (as opposed to the feeding-at-the-trough affair that the American meal is morphing into). The presence of these TVs would be no less disgraceful if they were placed in a church so dudes could keep an eye on the game during the sermon.

Second, the salsa—though still tasty—is not spicy whatsoever. This strikes a severe blow to Remy’s authenticity, and is also disrespectful of Mario’s tradition. In an article about La Fiesta’s relocation a couple years ago, the journalist—who was either ignorant or possessed of a strange sense of humor—wrote, “Mario’s has competition in the form of a popular chain, Chipotle’s Mexican Grill, which Tejada insists is no competition at all. ‘Instead of our genuine hot sauce—which we make from jalapenos, serranos or habaneros—the chains sell a watered- down version,’ [Mario said].” Remy’s, in this regard, seems to be actually imitating the chains, which is a bit like if Eminem tried to copy Vanilla Ice, or Radiohead tried to be more like R.E.M.

The combination of big TVs and weak salsa—the first two things you notice when eating at Remy’s—has a truly disheartening effect. Returning to my earlier analogy, it’s like your new stepmom being your age, and trying to suck up to you as a pal. Remy’s is saying, “We don’t want to hurt your mouth! We don’t want you to be bored during your meal! We don’t want you to miss the game! We want you to have fun! We want to be your friend! It’s their right, of course, but it’s patronizing, and tacky, and distasteful. College kids don’t need to be pandered to; they need to be shown what’s what, a service La Fiesta provided for generations.

One particularly annoying thing is that if you look at the Google Maps reviews of Remy’s, what you actually get are old reviews of La Fiesta. This strikes me as a flat-out theft of Mario’s well-earned reputation. It’s no different than if I bought Alexi Grewal’s 1984 Pinarello racing bike and then went around telling people I’m an Olympic gold medalist. I’m going to blame Google for this, not Remy’s, but still—it’s annoying.

The real reviews of Remy’s, meanwhile, strike me as unduly harsh. Granted, most of the reviewers are as stunned and grief-stricken as I am over La Fiesta being gone, so I can understand their impulse to skewer the interloper. But Remy’s (which I think has retained at least one cook from La Fiesta) does have some strong points. The chile relleno is still pretty good (only the sauce is wrong—totally insipid), and the rice is the same as ever, and the flauta is almost identical to Mario’s—only the guacamole on it was a bit wrong (too much lime). If a place in my neighborhood had food like this, I’d be stoked.

The décor is almost the same (other than those damn TVs), and in fact the chief difference in ambience is that things we overlooked since La Fiesta moved from Telegraph Ave are now things we’re tempted to nitpick about. For example, the original location had these great hand-painted wicker chairs (look for them in the photos above) that before La Fiesta’s demise were already being gradually replaced due to old age. (Occasionally I’d get a particularly frail one and would quickly swap chairs with one of my kids.) In their place are the gross brown-painted steel-box-section chairs with foam rubber padding under vinyl that give a tiny wheeze when you sit on them. They’re like what you’d get in a cheap cafeteria. Did I notice them before? Yeah, I guess—but it’s so tempting to blame them on the new owners.

Really, the only way for Remy’s to stack up would be to replicate Maria’s La Fiesta in every detail. To be 98% identical isn’t enough—remember, if you were 2% different, you’d be a chimpanzee. Remy’s is doomed to fall down as badly in the comparison as Kenney Jones being held up to Keith Moon, or Shelley Hack to Jaclyn Smith—not only because it’s legitimately inferior, which it certainly is, but also because our sense of loyalty and honor demand that it fall short. For Remy’s to be compared to La Fiesta is like your new stepmother being compared to your own mom.

Gratitude

Naturally I would be a real ingrate if I ended this post on a sad note. After all, at least I got to enjoy a great restaurant for twenty years, while 17 million Dutch people have no Mexican food at all (unless they’re lucky enough to dine at my brother’s place). And it’s not like I can’t get good Mexican anymore, with the Mission District of San Francisco—a mecca for kick-ass taquerias—a short trip away.

I think I’m going to check out Juan’s Place again. It’s only been around for some thirty years, but it’s actually the first Mexican restaurant I went to when I moved to Berkeley in 1990. I remember that trip well—a bunch of blue-collar types at the next table were arguing about the bill and it evolved into an actual fistfight. I’ve seen cops eating there too, so it’s got some cred, and as I recall the food is good enough. It’s going to have to wait, though. I’m still in mourning.

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