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Adios, Taco Bell: Original store moves from Downey to Irvine in late-night run

Across Southern California, they stood witness to history.

“It’s like a piece of us is gone,” said Sue Kesler, who drove from Burbank to say goodbye to the massive cultural artifact that would soon pass by with processional gravity and grace. “We had a lot of memories here.”

Those who braved the chilly air Thursday night and Friday morning also came to participate in a budding tradition: To honor the ingenuity and can-do spirit required to move big and important things across the urban realm.

First the majestic boulder known as “Levitated Mass” inched o’er the cityscape to its perch at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Then the space shuttle Endeavor crept nobly to its final landing place at the California Science Center.

Now, strapped in and secured to the back of a truck, the original Taco Bell restaurant edged through the night on an ultimate run for the border: The border of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

About 50 people surrounded the dirt lot the shop has called home for decades, snapping photos and standing in line for free crunchy tacos or bean and cheese burritos from a Taco Bell food truck. They were happy that the 53-year-old building’s relocation would save it from demolition.

“If they can move a space shuttle, we can move a 400-square-foot restaurant,” Taco Bell spokesman Matt Prince said.

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The shop, affectionately called Numero Uno, rolled through Downey, Norwalk, Cerritos, La Palma, Buena Park, Anaheim, Tustin and Orange before making its final stop in Irvine.

Taco Bell founder Glen Bell opened the eatery in 1962. It closed as a Taco Bell in 1986 but continued to house various taquerias for decades. The shop has been vacant since December 2014.

Led by a few police cars and followed by a small cadre of fans, the building pulled out of its historic home and began its crawl toward the mother ship around 10:30 p.m. Numero Uno made its journey without a hitch, topping speeds of 20 mph.

The shop wasn’t greeted by the same fanfare the Endeavour enjoyed, but every now and then, there was a burst of excitement. A couple standing near a bus stop in Downey pulled out their iPad to document the move. A trio of bikers who were stopped behind the restaurant in Buena Park bobbed up and down, trying to figure out what was going on.

The last Taco Bell noted along the path — touted as a watching point — was empty by the time the building passed by, but three people stood on the corner and took pictures with their phones.

Most witnessing the move were disgruntled drivers whose late-night commutes were snarled by a mobile eatery illuminated with purple lights. Stuck going 15 mph in a 40 mph zone, many turned onto side streets to avoid the scene altogether.

The pack of followers dwindled to about 20 by the time the garage-sized shop parked in front of headquarters. The fans jumped out of their cars at 1:30 Friday morning. Some had followed since Downey. Others hopped in along the way.

Deb Bailey, 56, grew up in Downey and used to ride her bike through cow pastures to the original Taco Bell with her friends when she was in junior high.

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“We used to cut through the back,” she said, holding a sign that read “Adios Taco Bell.” “It’s a part of my childhood.”

Ethan Daigle, 17, was pulling out of a Wal-Mart in Orange County with his mom and siblings when they noticed a truck driving by with police lights. Officers asked them to stay in the parking lot until the shop passed, he said. When they were allowed to drive away, they decided to follow it.

“We thought it was a prison bus at first,” Ethan said before his mom, Stephanie Daigle, added, “Like Hannibal Lecter or something.

Once they figured out it was a Taco Bell, Ethan said, he looked up the route on his phone and the family decided to catch the building in Irvine as a “welcoming committee.”

Before leaving around 2 a.m., Daigle took photos of his younger brother in front of the restaurant. Others followed their lead.

Taco Bell said the original building will stay at the company’s headquarters for storage until the business and its fans make a decision about its future.

“This building started it all,” said Prince, the spokesman, still energized Friday morning. “It’s No. 1 in our hearts.”

For Taco Bell lovers in Downey, there’s still a store across the street from Numero Uno’s original location.

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Earlier, Paola Perez gazed fondly at Numero Uno as it rested on the truck at the original site.

“I remember eating here growing up,” Perez said. Even now, she said she eats at least once a week at the restaurants most connoisseurs consider cheesy.

“I freaking love them,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody thinks.”

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

For more local news, follow @sarahparvini on Twitter

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