Monday, September 12, 2016

The Last Chalupa

Earlier this week, during the height of the butterfly migration, I found myself driving west on Jefferson, behind Kerrville's main H-E-B grocery store. The butterflies were thick there and looked like leaves blowing in the wind. Like many of you, I wish they'd fly about 15 feet farther from the ground, where they'd be above my vehicle and out of traffic.
As I neared Rodriguez Street, I had a strong memory from years ago. I'm not sure what triggered the memory. Please indulge me as I share it here with you.
There are many of us who remember a small restaurant on the corner of Jefferson and Rodriguez: Torres Foods, which was more popularly known as the Tortilla Factory. It was owned by Louis Romero, and was begun by his grandmother Delphina Torres.
I have fond memories of the crew that ran the front counter. There was Felix, who passed away some years ago. He often told me I ate so many chalupas I was going to turn into a chalupa. There was also a young woman named Mela, who had such a great laugh. And another young woman named Gris who was very shy. (I'm afraid I've misspelled their names.) I still occasionally see the young women around town.
I would often see Louis Romero behind the screen, and there were a number of cooks and others I never met, who worked behind the scenes. Louis was often at a steam table of some type, assembling food orders. It was a busy place.
The restaurant closed in 2004, when the land was sold to H-E-B, and the old landmark was torn down. A grocery store employee parking lot was built on the spot, 228 Jefferson Street.
My memories of the place go back to my high school days. On long band trips a group of us brought food to share; each had a different item to bring. It was my responsibility to bring tamales from Torres Foods. Bringing those certainly improved my popularity on those bus trips -- at least until the tamales were gone.
Later, when Ms. Carolyn and I had kids, we'd often take them there after soccer games, where we'd load up on tamales and chalupas. In fact, the kids expected it. For a long time soccer meant a meal at Torres Foods afterwards, win or lose.
Many summer evenings I'd suggest we go by and grab a bag of tamales and head to Louise Hays, so the kids could chase lightning bugs on Tranquility Island.
Whenever we had foreign visitors, we always took them there so they could enjoy an authentic tamale. I still remember the polite but very concerned expression a girl from Scotland wore as she peeled away the corn husk and observed the steaming tamale beneath. She was brave and ate the tamale, and said it was good, but we all noticed she only ate one.
The memory which flooded back this week as I drove along Jefferson Street happened a day soon after Easter, long ago.
That year I had rashly given up too much for Lent: I would drink nothing but water during that season. That meant no soft drinks. That meant no wine. I was miserable.
Why would a Baptist give up anything for Lent, you might ask? I asked myself the same question that year, and often. I've never been that rash again during the Lenten season.
I must have complained often about my decision, and complained all over town. Obviously I was not observing Lent in a quiet, private manner, as I should have done. I pouted and complained.
Evidently I also complained to Felix, Mela and Gris. They must have suffered my whining for weeks during that season.
So, after Easter and on the first day it was possible to enjoy a chalupa and a Coke at Torres Foods, I bee-lined it down there. I placed my order, and asked for change for the Coke machine, which the young women handed to me.
I marched over to the machine to find a hand-written sign: "Out of Order."
The machine was broken. There would be no Coke for me. Mela asked if I'd like some water, instead. I was crestfallen.
Then they all laughed. The machine was not broken, after all. They had placed the sign there just to tease me.
That's what I remembered as I drove down Jefferson Street this week. The laughter. And the smell of good food cooking just behind the partition. And how good that chalupa tasted with a cold Coca-Cola.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who received a gift from Louis Romero after the restaurant closed, a t-shirt which reads "I ate the last Chalupa at the Tortilla Factory."

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