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Tucson Salvage

‘Taco Tom’ and an eatery too tough, or sentimental, to die



We stand out front of the Silver Room bar and breathe in the Palo Verde blossoms. There's a too-hot-for-April breeze stirring dust, and searing Air Force jets above cancel the lilting coos of desert mourning doves.

The Arroyo Chico neighborhood seems to never end to the south and east, and we don't want it to ever end, because its low roofs, barking dogs and front-yard Mary altars are lovely, and so very Tucson.

Across the street sits Tucson Unified School District's safety and security center and dozens of TUSD buses parked in perfect angles. We grew up in this town, attended TUSD schools, rode those buses.

And no one's on foot here, car traffic's minimal, and there are no outward signs of forward movement. It has that hum of motionlessness years burned in by the sun.

The desert hums beneath all things here. So much that it somehow becomes sentimental, giving weight and depth and shape to things that have long receded in the rearview. That yearning's not so healthy, but in this age of boring cultural irony—how recent history is so lazily satirized—and how culture seems to be spinning to an ulterior end, we'll take the bittersweet backward gazes, those involving sights, sounds, smells and tastes of an Old Pueblo childhood.

We hold close old Tucson people, places and things, whether we want to or not—from stories involving the terrifying Pied Piper of Tucson to "that Green Valley grin" on blue-hairs bouncing along on golf carts. From the air-raid sirens that'd jolt this sleepy town awake every Saturday at 1 p.m. to falling in love at a tender age with Joey Ramone and P.J. Soles, both bigger than life in Rock 'N' Roll High School on the giant screen at the De Anza drive-in theater.

And El Taco? Yeah, sure, we remember.

Who could forget that sombrero'd gent, its eyebrow-raising stereotype on the signage that upheld the entire El Taco brand? Or that inescapable radio jingle jammed our kid heads, the words "El Taco" repeating endlessly to the tune of "El Jarabe Tapatio" ("The Mexican Hat Dance")? That stuff signaled something in our white-bred kid beings, in the stomachs of my siblings and me, more than any other eatery in Tucson. Parents couldn't afford much with five kids, so we hardly ate out. When we did, El Taco was the shit. Those hard-shell things spiced up and so juicy that when you bit into them they dripped down your chin and onto your shirt and that Halloween-orange wax-paper wrapper. Pure glory.

Which brings us back to the Silver Room.

Connected to the bar is the only El Taco address, at 663 S. Plumer Ave., in Tucson, maybe in the country. It just reopened from its original location of many years on Country Club Road near Glenn Street. There's an El Taco food truck too, which grew out of the same family run location.

It has a sort of rustic feel inside, more so than El Tacos of yore, and there's keen attention to homespun detail—the checkered tablecloths, the yellow, green and red walls. It smells of heated tortillas and simmering beans.

It's Wednesday and owner Tom Stockton's chipper in a black trucker hat and red Arizona Wildcats shirt. He's a dedicated, hard-working guy with a warm spirit. As a kid, his dad taught him a lot about cars, dirt bikes and engines, and also how to cook and run a business.

Today's like any other weekday (he's closed weekends): Stockton arrives early to prep and cook; he wipes, washes, heats, mixes and chops. He makes the salsa and the refried beans (with no oil or lard) from scratch. The green chilis and beef and chicken are all fresh too.

Then he opens at 7 a.m. in time for breakfast and waits for folks to arrive. An hour might pass before a customer shows.

Those who come in order green chili burritos, chimichangas and tacos. The takeaway, from what they tell me: This place intimately connects them to childhood moments, growing up Tucson in the '70s or '80s, or even the '60s. For these folks—men and women, Latino and white, younger and older—it's like euphoric recall. And it's easy to understand. The food, they say, is as good now as it was then.

Longtime El Taco patron Jeff Huntsinger steps in, orders. Huntsinger, who physically fits his role as an ex-Army man, train engineer and Grateful Dead fan, has known Stockton for years, though they've not seen each other in some time. His family owned a Dairy Queen on Fort Lowell Road, not far from the old El Taco.

"All my friends either worked for him," Huntsinger says, nodding at Stockton, "or at the Dairy Queen."

And these dudes can reminisce. They talk of the old neighborhood kids like One-Armed Eric who lost his limb to cancer, and who worked at both the El Taco and the Dairy Queen. El Taco stories fly.

Huntsinger says he's been spreading the word that Sto`ckton has "opened back up."

That's good news because Stockton has no budget for advertising. Die-harders hear of the new location and drive in from all parts of the city. And because it's attached to the Silver Room, you can bring your booze into El Taco and order food.

Some El Taco backstory: El Taco began in California, created by Glen Bell Jr., the first guy to mass-produce tacos. Bell sold his interest in the small chain (which was mainly Arizona and California) in the early '60s and created Taco Bell, which became over-the-top homogenized and grotesquely ubiquitous when it sold out to PepsiCo in '78.

Yet at one point in the '70s there were as many as 20 independently owned El Tacos in Tucson. Bill and Virginia Stockton had maxed out their credit cards to purchase the El Taco franchise in 1977, after their U-Haul enterprise upended. That's when their son Tom, who was an eighth grader at Doolen Middle School, began working there. He's been at El Taco pretty much ever since. Hence the nickname "Taco Tom."

The California office that oversaw the El Taco chain went bankrupt around 1980, and the local franchises slowly began to sell out to other chains or close up completely, until there was the one location on Country Club Road near Glenn Street. The Stockton family sold it with little fanfare in December '13. It's now a Mediterranean joint called Za'atar.

"My parents only paid $60,000 for that El Taco," Stockton laughs. "But that's actually a lot of money then ... And it was seven days a week, with a drive-thru window. The whole family worked there."

Stockton and his older sister ran the night shift when they were both in high school. Mom would drop them off and pick them up.

Then he lost that sister in '84, a head-on with a drunk driver on the Catalina Highway. Grief hit the family in unimaginable ways.

In 1985, dad moved on to teach automotive at area jails and prisons. He left the El Taco in the hands of his son. The younger Stockton soon began doing everything, "the orders, the cooking, the payroll, the serving ..." His younger sister Gena came aboard and his mother faded from the picture.

Then there was the one time a guy died at that El Taco.

"It was 1990 or so," Stockton says. "I remember I was in the back cutting onions for chili. It was like a bomb went off when this guy's van slammed into us. My sister hit the floor. Two customers hit the floor. An older women dove under the bench and her brother just stayed in the same spot with a burrito in his hand, stunned. He was still holding the burrito when the dust settled. The van driver was pronounced dead on the scene."

The place took another hit in '08 when the economy tanked. Folks just stopped coming in. Stockton says common courtesy evaporated too. "I remember a guy smoking a crack pipe outside on the table like it was nothing, others doing lines of coke or speed."

After the family sold El Taco, Stockton's younger sister Gena split off and now owns the "Original El Taco" food truck, which often serves on Fort Lowell Road near the old location. This El Taco, which opened last fall, after Stockton scraped together $10,000 to open in the space that once housed the El Molcajete Mexican restaurant, is officially, if confusingly, called "Stockton's El Taco Tom's."

Stockton says the split with his younger sister from the Country Club franchise was fraught with tension. "It's family," he says.

The two share El Taco recipes, which are similar, but not exact. The food sports the classic flavor based on the original El Taco spice formulae. Stockton doctored the recipes based on trial-and-error against the El Taco originals.

"There were some spices and sauces that we thought we lost after the corporation went out of business," Stockton says.

By 4 p.m. closing time, Stockton's fading. No wonder, he's huffed the El Taco routine for 37 years.

A day here and it's easy to see how this new El Taco isn't about innovation, nor is it about evolving into something other than the little brand established years ago. For Stockton, it's about sustentation, staying put. That's why he continued with the El Taco name. It's a show of province, of bone-deep commitment to working-class Tucson, the kind of thing keeps this town chugging along.

In fact, Stockton fell in love with an El Taco counter girl his dad had hired in the early '80s. After 31 year they're still married and have two kids—a son in the U.S. Navy who's done multiple tours in Iraq, and a married daughter in Tucson. They have three grandchildren.

He says he might hire someone fulltime, who he could trust to cook, and to open for dinner hours, but he's not there yet financially, or, perhaps, emotionally.

He does have one part-time employee, Pepe Medina. He's a thin guy who laughs a lot. Medina and Stockton were once related, through marriage. Stockton's son had married Medina's daughter. The union didn't last long but the friendship between the men did.

"We're still good,'' Medina winks. "Yep. We're still good."

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