The first time Matthew Schwartz ditched junior high in the early 1980s, some upperclassmen smuggled him in the back seat of a car and drove to Henry’s Tacos.
“We could have gone anywhere, but we went to Henry’s,” said Schwartz, 42, a Pasadena lawyer. “It was the place to go.”
Schwartz has been coming to the taco stand in Studio City since he was a second-grader. Other than price inflation, the bare-bones menu has stayed the same for 51 years: ground beef tacos, refried bean and orange-cheese burritos, and “taco burgers.”
“Is it authentic Mexican food? No. But it is a classic example of what I call gringo-Mex, in the most loving sense I could possibly mean that,” he said.
To its fans, there is something quintessentially L.A. about Henry’s Tacos, which was opened in 1961 by a white guy from Nebraska, had bit parts in movies and TV shows like “Adam 12" and boasted loyal customers ranging from working Joes to Hollywood celebrities.
So when the owner announced earlier this month that Henry’s Tacos would close at the end of year, fans rose up in protest.
Suddenly, long lines started forming around the modest midcentury stand at the corner of Moorpark Street and Tujunga Avenue. Celebrities such as Aaron Paul and Elijah Wood showed up to buy tacos and lend their support. And a Web campaign has taken off, including Facebook groups like “Occupy Tujunga” and hundreds of Twitter posts with the hashtag #SaveHenrysTacos.
The battle focuses in part on whether Henry’s is more than a taco stand — whether it’s actually a piece of history worthy of official preservation. In a city that boomed after World War II, L.A. has debated giving historic status to a car wash and space-age Googie buildings. But for devotees of Henry’s, it’s less about the architecture than the lifestyle it conjures.
“Every place has different landmarks that help define it, and for the Valley its history is mid-20th century,” said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “A place that was built in 1961 and is still there today says a lot because so much has changed in the Valley over the years and you have so few places that have stood the test of time.”
Henry’s Tacos is the latest food stand involved in a fight to win some level of historical status. In 2005, West Hollywood made national headlines when it named the Irv’s Burger stand on Santa Monica Boulevard an official “cultural resource.” Two years ago, preservationists in Hollywood lost a fight to keep the historic Molly’s Burger stand on Vine Street going. For years, fans have hoped that the Tail O’ the Pup, the famed hot-dog-shaped stand that used to be near the Beverly Center, would reopen (the stand is now in storage).
Henry’s Tacos’ impending closure is the result of year-long dispute that started when owner Janis Hood applied for a historical monument designation for the stand last year. Hood said her landlord increased her rent 50% and has refused to renew her lease since last December.
Hood believes the landlord, Beverly Hills businessman Mehran Ebrahimpour, was irked because a historical designation would put land-use restrictions on the property. Ebrahimpour could not be reached for comment through his lawyer.
L.A.'s Cultural Heritage Commission unanimously approved Henry’s as a historical landmark last year, but the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee postponed a vote on it earlier this year until Hood’s lease was renewed.
Hood has lined up several prospective buyers, but all have been turned down by the landlord, she said.
The restaurant has always been a family business. Hood’s grandfather, Henry Comstock — the stand’s namesake — moved from Nebraska in the late 1950s and became interested in the concept of a roadside taco stand. He opened less than a year before Taco Bell was founded in Downey in 1962. Hood’s mother later owned the restaurant for 47 years before she died in 2009. Hood then took over.
The support for Henry’s has been overwhelming, she said. More than 5,600 people have signed an online petition to save the restaurant, and loyal patrons have posted video testimonials online.
“I knew I wasn’t the only one who grew up with Henry’s and loved it,” said Hood, of Sherman Oaks. “Henry’s is one of the very few places that is still around and hasn’t changed. Someone said it’s like eating a memory.”
Last Sunday, the stars came out in support.
Wood and Paul were among hundreds of hungry customers who braved the rain and stood in a line that snaked around the block. Wood told paparazzi that the soft-shell beef tacos are his favorite, and he later posed with Hood in front of the restaurant.
Comedian George Lopez paid for everyone’s food for an hour — ringing up a $945 tab, Hood said.
Food stands like Henry’s Tacos began popping up around Los Angeles in the 1940s and became popular quick-lunch destinations in a city with a mild climate. Many have closed in this era of the drive-through, but Fine said it’s no surprise residents cherish those that remain.
“Communities care about their locally owned Main Street businesses. People have a connection to it because it’s local,” he said.
Schwartz made his pilgrimage back to Henry’s on Tuesday and waited in line with more than 20 people doing the same.
The stream of memories kept coming. In fifth grade, his friends would eat at Henry’s and dare one another to drink hot sauce straight out of the cup — a childhood rite of passage.
“After you drank one, it would be how many can you do?” he said. “Henry’s is an icon of the community, and it would really be a shame for it to go.”