Food Trucks. That was my idea. I’m predicting a surging new wave of them soon. I had spotted out the Ramirez Taco Truck near my house, often parked on East Hammond Street, just east of Fire Station 36, and figured I’d start out there. Besides, they were also parked in my personal taco district, which is to say the square-mile precinct examined in my ongoing masterwork, The Northwest Pasadena Taco Survey. A personal project started several years ago, the survey endeavors to track how many different places serve tacos in my neighborhood. (Coming into this year and prior to the pandemic lockdown, the number stood at a whopping 30.)
As I waited for my order of three tacos — birria, al pastor, and pollo ($1.75 each) — I quizzed the ebullient Adriana Zavala while the matriarch of the operation, Blanca Ramirez, whipped up my tacos.
Adriana revealed that they had deployed the truck only seven months before. Prior to that, for the last five years they ran the taqueria counter inside the Ramirez Carniceria, a small grocery store on Lincoln Avenue, just north of Orange Grove Boulevard. She also allowed that Vero’s — a small restaurant of long standing specializing in mariscos — was leaving its location two doors down on Lincoln. I knew both places well from prior research. That said, I already knew that Vero’s had opened a second location in the space formerly occupied by Tonny’s on Orange Grove, just west of Lake Avenue. A subsequent drive-by on Lincoln confirmed that the original Vero’s had closed on May 31.
I opted to enjoy my tacos on the grassy bank of trees next to the truck as I mulled over the thickening plot and my next moves. According to Blanca and Adriana, the small strip of buildings on Lincoln was sold nearly a year ago. The unrelated owner of the grocery decided to close the store immediately and gave the Ramirez family and their taqueria all of two weeks’ notice to vacate. Luis Ramirez, Blanca’s son and the family scion, adroitly engineered the purchase and permitting of the food truck, which launched in November. The truck tends to change location four to five times a day, although their locations are always on the perimeter of Robinson Park. Lunch hours tend to find them at the location on Hammond near the firehouse, or just around the corner on Fair Oaks Avenue. Asked how business was faring, Adriana replied, “Now slow, very slow. I hope in one more month it’s better…”
Having sampled dozens and dozens of tacos in the neighborhood over the years, I can say I’ve never really met a bad taco. However, two qualities always stand out: care and attention. The lack of either or both renders an otherwise good taco simply mediocre. I’m happy to say that Blanca Ramirez makes a great taco. Her veggie quesadilla ($5.95, $7 with meat) met with the approval of quesadilla expert Tsing Miller, 18, of Van Nuys, who commented, “The flavor profile was like a veggie pizza. The rice and beans were very nice… a good meal!” Rife with broccoli, zucchini and oozing Monterrey Jack cheese, it’s a lovely choice if birria de rez (served daily) is not your thing. Care and attention. Blanca Ramirez serves both.
Now I have to get the rest of the story. Onward to Vero’s!
“Twenty-three and a half years!” Jose Dominguez beams, proclaiming the length of Vero’s tenure on Lincoln and Orange Grove. I’m sitting with Dominguez in the new dining room of Vero’s, located in the space long occupied by Tonny’s, a Mexican restaurant that trended toward juices and health food in addition to more traditional entrée items (including tacos).
Dominguez is able to provide a bit more detail over the shakeup on his erstwhile Lincoln strip. Apparently a real estate developer purchased the block of stores last June with the ultimate intention of razing the buildings and constructing a row of townhouses. Gentrification anyone?
The owner of the grocery housing the Ramirez taqueria left immediately, sending the Ramirez’s to their truck. Dominguez was determined to stay for as long as he could but started looking for a second outlet. The owners of Tonny’s were open to selling. “This was the first place that was available,” he says.
Dominguez opened the new location on Nov. 15 with the intention of operating both restaurants. He received notice in April (in the midst of the lockdown) from the Lincoln developers to vacate by the end of June. The old place was smaller, dimly lit and the walls were festooned with portraits and historical photos of the Mexican revolutionaries Zapata and Pancho Villa. The pictures have been remounted at the new sunnier Vero’s and the effect is now more of a loving tribute than an obsessive shrine. “For me, they are my heroes,” says Dominguez.
With the dinner rush advancing, I vow to return in the morning to resume our conversation. Easier said than done. Vero’s had just opened for dine-in service the previous week. When I arrive for what will be my third dine-in meal since quarantine, there are already two other couples in the dining room, where tables have been cordoned and spaced for social distance. Jose is consumed at the stoves as his delightful daughter Celeste, 18, greets me with a no-contact temperature check — my first — before seating me in the back. There’s also a covered open-air patio space with ceiling fans in back for additional table seating.
It’s just Jose in the kitchen and Celeste out front as the breakfast rush begins. The menu features an interesting amalgam of Tonny’s popular juices and botanicos (elaborate fresh fruit salads) and Vero’s seafood specialties. The breakfast entrees include the usual specials as well as a list of Mexican-inspired desayuno plates, all priced at $10.50. There are also weekday $1 taco specials, as advertised on banners outside. Notably, from Tonny’s former menu there is a page of 15 different fresh fruit and vegetable juice combinations, each with individual health prescriptions in English and Spanish. I order a banana and pineapple juice ($4.95) and huevos con nopales (eggs with cactus) because why the hell not?
After Celeste hurries the order in, I look at the health prescription for my juice combo: “Rich in vitamins and very nutritious. Prevents constipation.” Duly noted!
A note on dining-in: Be patient and kind to overtaxed staff and responsible to your own concerns. Vero’s is going beyond the standard guidelines to insure safety for their guests and staff. With temperature checks and an outdoor patio with ventilation, Vero’s affords a reliably safe environment for dining in. That said, cases are still on the rise in Pasadena and everyone needs to exercise caution. The appearance of six paramedics from Station 33 taking up a large table on the back patio would seem to affirm both Vero’s relative safety as well as the quality of the food.
My eggs were excellent and though the nopales may not have been cut from a fresh paddle, they were perfectly done to my taste with the look and texture of well sautéed string beans. Subtly seasoned with a hint of heat, I didn’t bother asking for salt, pepper or hot sauce. The juice had been whipped with milk and reminded me of a Cuban batido. In all, a thoroughly satisfying desayuno experience, though by the time I had paid my tab there was a line out the door and Jose was again too busy slinging away at the stoves to continue our conversation.
Returning later in the afternoon, I join Jose and Celeste — soon to start studying child development at CSUN — in the now placid dining room. Having managed a tricky transition in the middle of a pandemic, Jose Dominguez exudes a sense of grateful relief. ”I’m so happy with my customers. I’m so proud of what we have!”
While the rest of us have been adapting to “the new normal” since March, the Ramirez and Dominguez families have been challenged with changes for a full year. They exemplify the patient resilience that we all need to summon these days. You can’t find them on Lincoln Avenue anymore, but thankfully they’re still in the neighborhood. Love thy neighbor and their tacos! ­