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Olamendi's restaurant is rooted in history and popular cuisine

Olamendi's restaurant is rooted in history and popular cuisine
Jorge Olamendi shares memories as he looks over a wall of old framed pictures, mostly of himself and his family with U.S. presidents, that cover the walls of the dining room at the original Olamendi's Mexican restaurant in Dana Point. (Don Leach / Weekend)

Soon after Jorge Olamendi opened his small, family-owned Mexican restaurant in San Clemente more than four decades ago, he noticed a mysterious customer.

"Once in a while a person would come in and order take-out tamales, taquitos, enchiladas, chile rellenos — and it would be a big bill," he said. "Every time we saw this person, we'd say, 'Wow, here he comes again, he's going to buy so much,' and we were all so excited."

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It took months for Olamendi to realize that this was no ordinary customer but rather a staffer for then-President Nixon.

"All that food was going to the Western White House," Olamendi said of Nixon's San Clemente estate, his retreat from Washington, D.C. "When we found out, we were thrilled. It was incredible, but we were told not to say too much about it."

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Now Olamendi isn't shy about showcasing his decades-long relationship with Nixon.

The walls of Olamendi's Mexican restaurant are covered with framed photographs of the former president, often posing with Olamendi and his family members, or sitting at his favorite table in the restaurant.

The table now bears a painting of Nixon's presidential seal, and his favorite dish — pollo a la veracruzano — has been given special status on the menu.

"He definitely helped my business," said Olamendi. "Not only that, he helped my family, helped my life. In every way, he touched us with his kindness."

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But it wasn't always this way.

After emigrating from Veracruz, Mexico, in the early 1960s, Olamendi worked as a server at a hospital dining room. He became close with some of the doctors on staff, and soon, they were encouraging him to pursue his dream of starting a Mexican eatery.

"The doctors used to tell me all the time, 'Jorge, you should open your own restaurant,'" Olamendi recalled. "And I used to tell them, 'But doctor, I don't have any money.'"

Fifteen doctors chipped in $1,000 each to give Olamendi the funds he needed to start his restaurant.

"I was so touched that I cried the day I found out that these people were willing to put in the money because they believed in me," he said.

Olamendi's opened in San Clemente in 1973 and featured some of the dishes the owner's mother and grandmother had cooked for him when he was growing up.

At the time, authentic Mexican fare wasn't common in Southern California.

"We were among the pioneers of Mexican food," Olamendi said. "Not the first one, but we helped start the Mexican food revolution."

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While the restaurant got off to a slow start, within a couple of years Olamendi's had became so popular that it had to move to a bigger space, its current location on Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point. Olamendi's is now a popular eatery for surfers, who frequently come in after catching waves across the street.

Tacos cost around $5; burritos, $10; tostadas, $12; enchiladas, $6; and fajitas, $20. The extensive menu also includes a vegan section, which Olamendi said was inspired by his vegan son.

The most famous customer, of course, is still Nixon, who continued visiting the restaurant until his death in 1994.

To the public, Nixon is best remembered for the Watergate scandal and becoming the only president in U.S. history to resign from office. But Olamendi remembers him differently.

"He was a very kind man," he said. "He would take time to go thank the kitchen, to tell the dishwashers, 'Thank you very much.' My wife would always go up to him and say, 'Thank you for coming, Mr. President,' and he would say, 'You don't have to thank me. Thank you for taking care of me.' That was unique, coming from someone like him."

Although some have claimed that El Adobe de Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano was actually Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant in the area, Olamendi doesn't believe it.

"We were his favorite; I know that," he said. "I have the pictures here to prove it."

Olamendi catered several events at the Western White House and later attended Nixon's funeral and the opening of his presidential library in Yorba Linda. Through this relationship, Olamendi met several other Republican presidents, including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Their photographs also cover the restaurant's walls.

"The reason I put all these pictures here isn't to show off," Olamendi said. "It's because it brings me happy memories. Every time I see them, it reminds me that life has been good."

Olamendi's is at 34660 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point. The restaurant is open 7 days a week. For more information call (949) 661-1005.

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