Los Tacos: A Tribute to a Taquero
By Frier McCollister
Diana Leos-Ralph reflects on her late father, Fidel Leos, the owner and operator of the locally beloved Los Tacos on California Boulevard.
“He basically lived the American dream,” she said. “He came here as a young immigrant and hustled. He always worked, and we were very fortunate. His hard work gave us a lot of opportunity.”
Fidel died on September 24 at age 69 due to complications caused by COVID-19.
If you are unfamiliar with Los Tacos, you’re new in town. A favorite of Pasadena Weekly readers, Los Tacos has landed the “Reader Recommended” award for “Best Taco” in a town with some real competition.
When Fidel Leos opened Los Tacos in February 1986, he was introducing Pasadena and the rest of the San Gabriel Valley to the soft-shell street-style taco, now all but the signature dish of greater Los Angeles. The living legacy of Fidel, Los Tacos is the granddaddy of taquerias in Pasadena and the SGV.
The local enthusiasm for Los Tacos is genuine. On a recent visit, Linda Goluskin of Pasadena gushed, “I’ve been coming here for years. It’s authentic. You can’t go wrong here. Everything is wonderful (and) the staff is always in a great mood. “I’m so sorry to hear of (Fidel’s) passing.”
Fidel was born in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico, on April 24, 1951. His family moved to Tijuana, when Fidel was 2 years old and then immigrated to Pasadena when he was 13. He attended McKinley Junior and Blair high schools. A gifted athlete, he was offered a full athletic scholarship to play soccer at UCLA but turned it down to support his extended family. He eventually completed his education at PCC and Cal State LA.
While in high school, Fidel began working as a busboy at the former Pepper Mill restaurant on Walnut, where he met Bill Maldonado, who was the restaurant’s pianist.
“Bill Maldonado had a dream to open his own place, which he did,” said Fidel’s widow, Martha Leos. “When the Pepper Mill closed, Fidel said all he wanted to do was go to school full time but Bill persuaded him to start as a cocktail boy. Maldonado’s evolved into a five-star restaurant.”
Fidel also quickly evolved to become the maître d’ and sommelier at the fabled local fine-dining fixture on Green Street, which closed in 1994.
“Fidel always had a dream of owning his own business,” Martha said. “When I met him, he had over $100,000 saved to open his own business.”
Instead, the couple married in 1980 after Fidel used his savings to purchase a home in Arcadia, where they began to raise their family. Diana was born in 1982 followed by her sister, Audrey, in 1985, the same year he announced to Martha, “I’ve found a location!”
The small storefront facing the parking lot on California Boulevard was only half the present size. The restaurant’s current dining room was a travel agency, when Fidel opened Los Tacos in February 1986. By the way, though the indoor dining area is closed because of pandemic restrictions, there are a number of distanced tables along the shady sidewalk, in front of the restaurant.
Fidel worked at Los Tacos during the day and at Maldonado’s in the evening, while Martha worked as a teacher and Los Tacos.
By the time their third daughter, Amy, was born in 1990, Fidel moved the family from Arcadia to Pasadena and two years later left Maldonado’s to grow Los Tacos.
In addition to expanding the Los Tacos dining room, a second location in San Gabriel opened on Los Tunas Boulevard in 1999 and quickly became the go-to hangout for teens from nearby San Marino High School. This second location closed in 2017, in the wake of proposed real estate development of the property.
In the meantime, Fidel avidly supported local youth athletics, regularly coaching, while serving on the board of directors for Pasadena Little League and South Pasadena AYSO soccer. He also routinely donated funds to Blair and Marshall high schools.
He encouraged his daughters to volunteer. When Diana was in high school and announced her intention to seek part-time employment at the local Abercrombie & Fitch, Fidel had other ideas.
“My dad (said), ‘No your job is to study and get good grades,” Leos-Ralph recalled.
“I provide you with everything you need and want. You should give back to the community, so you should volunteer your time to help others.”
Martha added, “He was always very big on the girls volunteering in the community.”
Given the character and profile of their late boss—not surprisingly –the staff of 12 at Los Tacos is unusually loyal. Many of them have worked there for years. The original chef Cruz Castanera only recently retired, having helmed the stoves at Los Tacos for 30 years. He still stops by to ensure the consistent quality that helps define the operation and the food.
When the pandemic lockdown arrived, no employees were laid off, though some shifts were modified. As Martha asserted, “(Initially) our sales did drop. People were leery (but) we never cut any employees.”
That said, their otherwise robust catering business has all but vanished in the pandemic.
In late August, Fidel showed signs of fatigue and was hospitalized with COVID-19 complications on September 2. Despite the prayers of the community, the original all-star taquero died on September 24. For a moment, the future of Los Tacos seemed uncertain.
“We just want to convey to our Pasadena community that we are not going to allow everything that Fidel worked so hard for to just stop,” Martha said.
Leos-Ralph has assumed the role of CEO working closely with manager Margarita Silva.
“We are very grateful to our Los Tacos family, our employees and to our community for their support,” Leos-Ralph said. “It’s like my dad did—put one foot in front of the other and do good.”