If you studied her acrobatics in the tiny kitchen at Teddy’s Tacos in City of Industry, the truth about Elena Castro would not be apparent.
She bends, stoops, stirs, chops, slices, dices and spins around co-workers in a dance that looks like a cross between roller derby and ballet.
You would not guess she started working 70 years ago at her parents’ business in Nayarit, Mexico.
You would not believe she is 81.
When Castro took a short breather Thursday afternoon, I asked how much longer she intended to keep up this pace.
“Until God says it’s enough,” she told me, looking up to the heavens. When she got no response from up there, she went back to work.
Castro’s problem, unfortunately, is that while she’s been able to defy time, the clock has been ticking on Teddy’s.
If things go as planned, a bulldozer will one day demolish the small restaurant and the few patio tables where loyal customers enjoy the fresh ingredients and special touches Castro puts into every meal, working with recipes and techniques developed over a lifetime.
Chipotle Mexican Grill is coming soon.
Before I explain why, let me back up to the beginning of Teddy’s, which never would have existed if not for the housing crash.
Castro’s daughter Adriana and son Ted were mortgage lenders who had to find a different line of work. They both tried this and that, then found out several years ago that the little taco stand in the shopping center at Valley Boulevard and South Hacienda Boulevard was available.
“We just thought, ‘How hard is it to sell tacos?’” said Adriana.
Harder than they thought. They took over from a guy who had called the restaurant Iguanas, Ranas and Tacos and Beer — and business was slow at first. Adriana toiled for several months to put some kick into the food, customers heard about it, and then their mom decided to jump in full time.
“It was gangbusters,” said Teddy.
Customers would taste the food and know whether Elena was in the kitchen or not, said Adriana.
What’s her secret?
“Love,” Elena told me.
“And she has a lot more energy than all of us put together,” said Teddy.
Her husband died young after working as a foreman at an ice company, so Elena — a seamstress, housekeeper and deli operator at various points — worked long and hard so her family could continue to enjoy middle-class living in Rowland Heights.
But at the taco stand, Teddy and Adriana worried, along with some of their four siblings, that their mom was working too many hours. She insisted she wanted to. If you own a business, she said, you have to be there to make sure everything is done just the way you like. Besides, staying home was boring.
“The only reason we’re not open Sundays is to keep her from coming to work after church,” said Teddy.
But the Castros never had a lease from the owner of the property, and when their arrangement with the Iguanas and Ranas guy ended, they began a month-to-month deal with the owners of the land and the building — Auerbach Realty Holdings. And they were informed that Teddy’s and the vacant former Pizza Hut next door might be demolished to make way for a Chipotle restaurant.
As the likelihood increased, the Castros looked for other locations but didn’t find anything. Lorna Auerbach, owner of the real estate company, told me Teddy’s was offered a chance to move into the Pizza Hut space before the Chipotle deal was struck, but the Castros don’t remember it that way.
When their business looked doomed late last year, Adriana and Teddy began looking for full-time jobs elsewhere and the Castros withheld rent payments to save money for relocation costs. The landlord took them to court and a settlement was reached allowing them to stay, for now, on a month-to-month basis, as long as they pay the back rent.
“There are no hard feelings,” said Adriana, who is working as a real estate agent and understands that business is business. Still, she’s disappointed the end is near, and so is the rest of the family. They haven’t given up on finding another spot, or maybe getting a taco truck. But starting and running a small business in Los Angeles — with high rent, stiff competition and all the usual bureaucratic nightmares — is daunting, especially when you need to pull a big enough profit to pay ridiculous housing costs.
Lorna Auerbach told me she doesn’t run a great big evil corporation, but a modest business she inherited from her parents — Ernest and Lisa Auerbach. They worked hard their entire lives and toiled as janitors by night while they tried to build up their business, she said.
“They had high ethical standards and they were incredibly philanthropic,” Auerbach said.
She told me she’s no fan of a generic terrain in which “every block you go to” looks the same, but in real estate, pressures from lenders often dictate land use decisions. When Pizza Hut quit its lease, she said, brokers and bankers came into play, land values, risks and returns were calculated, and Chipotle was ready to go.
But consumers also play a role in the homogenization of the culture and the landscape. For too many of us, comfort kills curiosity and the familiar trumps the unknown, authenticity be damned.
On Thursday at Teddy’s, two diners talked about nearby Rainbow Donuts while they ate lunch. Hard to believe, said one, but a Dunkin’ Donuts had just opened practically next door.
Hey, I said, I wrote about Rainbow two years ago, and last I knew, the West Covina Planning Commission had rejected Dunkin’ Donuts. But it turns out the city finally said yes.
I drove over to have a look. And sure enough, if you stood at the entrance to Rainbow, you could fling a buttermilk bar and hit Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s that close.
“It just breaks my heart,” said Rainbow owner Sing Yam, who fled the Khmer Rouge, moved to California and opened Rainbow 30 years ago. “Somebody has to stick up for mom and pop. But, knock on wood, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. My customers are still coming in.”
For now, they’re still coming to Teddy’s, too.
Cinco de Mayo was slated to be the last day (with free margaritas), but a sign at the entrance informed customers — hundreds of whom have signed up to be notified if Teddy’s finds a new location — that an agreement on a monthly deal means the restaurant will remain open a while longer.
Over two days, I talked to more than 20 customers — from construction workers to white-collar types. Nobody had a problem with Chipotle, and many had eaten at the chain. But regulars Marvin Holmes and Vidal Cortes, among others, said the generic can’t stand up to a true original like Teddy’s. They and others raved about the barbacoa, the al pastor and the fish tacos, with prices starting at $1.95.
All of this as the smoky scent of the tinga wafted over the patio while Elena Castro stirred chipotle chilies into the shredded chicken bubbling in a giant kettle, and jalapeños sizzled on the grill.
Rudy Estrada ordered four tacos and a chicken torta Friday, and when I asked if he was going to eat all of that, he said no, he was going to visit his 97-year-old mother in a convalescent home and she loved Teddy’s food. His mother would eat the four tacos, he said, and he’d eat the torta.
“If they move, I’ll go wherever they go,” said Estrada, who called out a thank you to Elena. “I’d go eat at her house if I could.”