Few things are as bittersweet as witnessing the closing of your favorite neighborhood restaurant. And the mood in the air was decidedly bittersweet yesterday at Ernie Jr.'s Taco House in Eagle Rock, which will close its doors today, Saturday, April 19. So, if you're going, get there quickly.
Ernie Cruz, the owner of Ernie Jr.'s, made his way around the dining room shaking hands and talking to long-time customers who thanked him for sharing his restaurant over the years. Customers like Viela Kawamoto brought photos shot over the restaurant's 41-year run to have Cruz sign. Kawamoto, who started going to Ernie Jr.'s Pasadena location almost 60 years ago, said visiting Ernie Jr.'s "was like coming home." She's visited the restaurant 10 times over the last two weeks since hearing about the closing.
Cruz's parents opened their first restaurant on North Broadway in Lincoln Heights in 1944. He vividly remembers sleeping under the cash register and his parents taking the Red Car downtown in order to get produce for the restaurant. "In the late 50s, business really started to take off, and the 60s were a boom," said Cruz.
His family started building more restaurants in Los Angeles, including locations on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood and on Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock (which was moved to the current West Broadway location in 1973 due to the 2 Freeway construction). Around 1955, his parents divorced, but Cruz's mother kept the Eagle Rock restaurant, opened a Pasadena location and changed the name to Ernie Jr.'s while his father kept the name Ernie's. Funny enough, the restaurant is not actually named after Ernie.
Over the years, Cruz has resisted changing or modernizing the menu and has pretty much kept it the same as it's always been - using original recipes created by his parents 70 years ago. "Everything is made from scratch," said Cruz. "This is really a mom-and-pop restaurant."
When disappointed customers ask Cruz why he's closing shop, he tells them that it's somewhat economically related, but more importantly, it's physical. Cruz said, "I'm going to be 70 and getting tired, and it's difficult to run the restaurant."
As is the case with many food-related businesses, Cruz's children saw how hard it was to run the business and have moved onto other careers.
Over the past couple of weeks the phone has been ringing off the hook, and customers have been lining up to get a last meal at their favorite Mexican joint.
Wendy Baker-Williams, a Los Angeles native who now lives in Sacramento, said her parents brought her to Ernie Jr.'s after she was born at nearby Glendale Adventist Hospital. It was her mother's favorite restaurant. Baker-Williams would frequent the establishment four times a week for about 33 years before moving up north. When she heard that Ernie Jr.'s was closing, she made a trip into town during the Easter holiday to pay tribute to her mother who passed away last year. "I brought my whole family [to Ernie Jr.'s]. We just came to say, 'goodbye,'" Baker-Williams said, while enjoying the same meal she ordered for 33 years.
In the near future, Cruz's family will discuss what will happen with the property, but right now, there are no set plans for what will become of Ernie Jr.'s Taco House. If you go, make sure to get the specialty of the house - the Grande Burrito. They may close early if they run out of food so hurry in.