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Tacos Clarita seeks to rekindle the flame of success

The grill is sizzling by the time Clarita Trujillo of Tacos Clarita steps onto the sidewalk. She’s got her apron on, her lips painted red, and she’s ready to cook.

Orale, muchachos!” she tells a few boys who roll past on skateboards. “Behave yourself. Or what’s your mom going to say?

“Come here and taste my enchiladas. They’re good for you.”

Trujillo will talk to anyone along Huntington Drive in El Sereno — to Doña Ana, Doña Juanita and Doña Lupita, to the bakers, the shop owners and the street sweepers.

PHOTOS: Recipe for success

“So long as they don’t have a fuchi face, nose turned up, looking the other way.” she says. “Why not stop and say hello?”

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At 76, Trujillo is used to being in the spotlight. Years ago, it was her spark, her ability to instantly chat up anybody, at any time, that made her and a little restaurant she used to own in Boyle Heights famous, at least on Spanish TV.

She charmed audiences on morning talk shows. She shared her recipes on the evening news. Her pambazos and huaraches, traditional dishes from her native Mexico City, drew crowds, even celebrities to her restaurant. They lined up for the food, but just as important, they came to see Trujillo.

Then, after 11 years, it all went away. She lost her lease and had to shut down Tacos Clarita. Trujillo disappeared.

Few of her once-loyal customers know that just five miles from the old spot, she and her family opened a new version. The restaurant, located between a tile supplier and a clothing shop, is barely surviving. A few weeks ago, Trujillo worked all day and made $5.

Still, the grandmother of 32 keeps on cooking. And keeps on talking — at the restaurant and out on the sidewalk — hoping some day soon, people will discover her and her food all over again.

::

When she was 50, Trujillo had a good job in Mexico City working for an encyclopedia company. But she was curious to see what lay on this side of the border. So she came to the United States on a tourist’s visa. (She overstayed the visa for more than two decades and is now in the final stages of becoming a permanent resident.)

“I pictured lots of tall, blond people with big, blue eyes walking in clean streets,” she said. “I thought I was going to heaven.”

She and her husband landed in South Gate, where they slept on a fold-out bed in a relative’s living room. Trujillo began to work, caring for elderly people. She also sold sodas in the park for 50 cents.

She knew nothing about starting a business, but she loved to cook and loved people.

She decided to try her luck at a community fair, selling tostadas de tinga, like the ones hawked on the streets of Mexico City. She placed a pot of shredded beef and a bowl of salsa on a plastic table, then waited for customers, confident that she would sell out. She hardly sold a thing.

Next, she opened a food stand in a tin shack in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, and this time created a small following for her tacos, huaraches and gorditas. Business was great for six years, then the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health caught on and had had her things confiscated — her grill, her refrigerator, her tables and her food. The second time that happened, Trujillo walked away.

With $15,000 in savings, she bought a restaurant, a tiny place with four tables located in a carwash. It was in Hollywood, two blocks from the Walk of Fame, and it had previously been owned by Humberto Luna, a popular Spanish radio personality.

“I thought his name alone would have people knocking down our door,” Trujillo said.

But all that came through were rich folks with big, shiny cars that needed washing.

“They ordered a soda or a glass of water, but never looked at my food,” she said.

Three months later, Trujillo was broke.

Still, she was too stubborn and loved her food too much to give up entirely.

Ever since she was a young girl, her quesadillas, her soups and her barbecue had beguiled people — at her children’s school, at the market and at the encyclopedia company.

Food was the one thing her stepmother, Mama Elena, taught her to take seriously.

The first time Trujillo was left in charge of the kitchen, she burned the pork, burned the chiles and forgot to boil the beans. Mama Elena came home and beat her hands red with a metal spoon.

“She always told us,” Trujillo said, “‘Eating is a ceremony. Everything has to be perfect.’”

And everything that was started had to be finished.

So Trujillo tried selling her food once more, this time at rented space in Boyle Heights. Customers liked her cooking. One woman enjoyed her enchiladas so much that she invited her daughter to the restaurant.

Trujillo saw the young woman and immediately recognized her. She was Jessica Maldonado, host of “Hola Los Angeles,” a Spanish TV morning show. Trujillo served her nearly everything on the menu — her mulitas, her huaraches, her fried taquitos and a giant sope. Then, like a proud aunt, she sat by her side and watched her savor every bite.

Maldonado left impressed. She had never experienced some of the dishes at any other Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. There was also something special about Trujillo.

“Something magical,” Maldonado remembers.

::

Maldonado invited Trujillo to cook on her show, though doing so was a risk.

The segment featured only high-profile chefs, the owners of Los Angeles’ finer restaurants, and here was Trujillo, the taco lady who used to peddle sodas at the park.

Maldonado prepped Trujillo as best as she could: wear a bright color and be concise, bring nice ceramic dishes and good-looking pots.

Trujillo showed up lugging bags full of mismatched plastic bowls and paper plates. She served her huaraches, cameras rolling, on napkins.

“Oh my God,” Maldonado remembers thinking. “They’re going to kill me.”

But by the end of the taping, everyone was too smitten with Trujillo to care. The producers, the camera operators and the viewers. She roamed the studio, a tiny, gray-haired woman with a high-pitched voice, acting like she belonged: “Hey how are you doing? How’s your health? How’s your mom? Don’t drink soda. Drink my horchatita.”

Soon, she was appearing on the show several times a month. And then, on other channels, both Spanish-language and PBS.

The attention made all the difference.

Trujillo moved to a bigger location on 4th Street with a patio, a Spanish tile roof and enough space to seat 87. She hired 11 workers, including a musician to entertain.

Most nights, the place was full. And Trujillo ran around the dining room doing what she loves most: talking about her food.

“She was the boss,” said frequent customer Juan Garcia, 28. “Every weekend, every gathering, we had to go and see Clarita.”

In 2006, as business continued to boom, Trujillo received bad news.

The property owner died and his children had other plans for the location. Her lease would not be renewed.

Trujillo was devastated. For the first time, she couldn’t imagine what she would do next.

Her six grown children, who had also immigrated to Los Angeles, told her to retire. She was 72. She should stay home and enjoy her grandchildren.

But they knew that could only last so long.

“People and food give her life,” said her son, Rafael Camacho, 38.

::

A year after the closing, Trujillo’s daughter, Irma Camacho, found a new location for another restaurant in El Sereno.

They painted the walls lemon yellow and hung black and white photos of Mexico’s national treasures on the walls: The Angel of Independence, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. Above the front doors, they mounted the same familiar sign: Tacos Clarita.

The restaurant belongs to Irma and her husband, but in the dining area, it’s Trujillo who shines. Even when there are no customers.

And these days, with the economy sour, and few of the old clientele aware she is back, Tacos Clarita is often empty.

So Trujillo does what she can to stir up interest. She ties on her apron, paints her lips red and heads to the sidewalk to cook on a portable grill.

On a recent night, she was trying to convince a young mother to try her carne asada when another woman walked by. When she saw Trujillo, she stopped instantly.

“Excuse me,” Guadalupe Gonzalez, 70, said. “Aren’t you that lady who used to own that little place on 4th, the one who used to come out on TV?”

Trujillo beamed. She threw her arm around Gonzalez.

“Yes! That’s me, that’s me,” she said. “I’m Clarita of Tacos Clarita.”

“Do you still make your huitlacoche quesadillas?”

“Of course,” Trujillo told her. “We have everything and we’re right here. Come visit us.”

Gonzalez promised she would and Trujillo, flashing a big smile, believed her.

PHOTOS: Recipe for success

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com


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