Mel Jarnagin says he’s a man of nostalgia.
The 51-year-old Santa Ana vintage-home real estate agent says he’s passionate about his job now but has fond memories of working the night shift at a Naugles restaurant in the early 1980s.
Back then, he didn’t mind going home smelling like the tacos and burritos he had prepared late at night. His taste buds didn’t get tired of the flavors.
Jarnagin was near the front of a long line of customers Thursday at the newly opened Naugles in Fountain Valley, the first since the Mexican fast-food chain closed its last location in 1995 after merging with Del Taco seven years earlier. The new place is in an industrial park at 18471 Mount Langley St.
“The level of flavors of the food is just on a different level,” Jarnagin said. “During the 1980s, what killed Naugles is what’s going to help it now. Everything was made fresh in-house every day, and it was hard to compete with 29-cent tacos. But now, with craft food coming back and people more concerned about how things are made, that’s what’s going to give Naugles a chance to come back.”
Naugles was revived this week by Fountain Valley entrepreneur Christian Ziebarth, who said he saw a demand for its return.
Initially, he said, the first week after Tuesday’s opening was supposed to be quiet, known only to fans on social media. But word got out and supply didn’t meet demand. The first two days, the restaurant ran out of food before its scheduled 7 p.m. closing.
“We’re trying to still be in a soft-opening phase, but the low-key nature of it kind of went down the drain,” Ziebarth said Thursday. “We got a lot of attention toward us very early, so it’s been crazy.”
Ziebarth, a web developer and food blogger, said he was a fan of Naugles’ food when he was growing up. This year he won the rights to the Naugles trademark from Del Taco, five years after petitioning the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“Naugles has so many fans,” Ziebarth said. “If it was only me who wanted Naugles back, I wouldn’t have even bothered. But I knew there were all the fans that wanted it.”
Late Thursday morning, Ziebarth announced to a lunchtime crowd of about 50 people, most of whom appeared to be 40 and older, that each person would be limited to three items from the menu, which has a price range of $2.50 to $8.
Three of the youngest people in the crowd, ranging from 21 to 25, said they didn’t yet understand the hype and had just tagged along with their mothers for a free lunch.
“These are just a bunch of old people trying to be nostalgic,” said Zoe Kam, 21, of Fullerton. “I’m expecting this to be slightly better than Del Taco.”
Tim Gill, 55, showed a lot more enthusiasm. The Lake Perris-area resident said he had waited 30 years to eat at a Naugles again and drove more than an hour Thursday to indulge in an Hombre Burrito.
Gill said he used to frequent Naugles late at night in the 1980s when it was among the few 24-hour restaurants around.
“Naugles is the best food I’ve ever had in my life,” said Gill, who was the first person in line Thursday, arriving two hours before Naugles opened at noon. “My last time having this was in 1985. To me, this is teenage nostalgia all over again.”
He said he eats at Del Taco, but nothing compares to Naugles.
“If you had a Naugles and Del Taco next to each other, I would pick Naugles every time,” he said.
Asked if he would again make the hour-plus drive to Fountain Valley’s Naugles, Gill chuckled.
“Well, my next day off is Monday,” he said after biting into his burrito. “This is where I’ll be.”
The first Naugles was opened in 1970 by Dick Naugle, a former Del Taco employee. It eventually grew from one restaurant in Riverside to 225 locations in the United States.
Naugles merged with Del Taco in 1988, and by 1995 all of its locations had been shut down and replaced with Del Taco restaurants.