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NC culinary landmark El Juan Cafe to close its doors on March 30 Phillip Brents | Fri, Mar 22 2013 12:17 PM

My earliest memory of dining out is a rather embarrassing one; well, it must have been embarrassing for my parents, at least.

I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old, which places this episode in the early 1960s. I remember the location distinctly: El Juan Café in National City. We were dining with my aunt, uncle and cousins at two tables pushed together in the middle of the dining room (the arrangement is still there today) when suddenly I got up and sat on the table.

The “extra” long table, festive family gathering and my novel way of trying to eat out of someone else’s plate obviously made a lasting impression on me.

There’s not many things I remember at that age.

The Mexican restaurant remained popular with my family — my late father was one of its original customers when it first opened in 1946 — and we enjoyed many fabulous meals there over the next five decades.

It was a special place to get out of the house and dine.

I’m saddened to say that after next weekend, I will not be able to enjoy the culinary delights at the National City landmark. Nor will anyone else, for that matter.

Restaurant owner Pat Santos informed me recently the establishment will close its doors for good on March 30 — the day before Easter.

Santos has owned the Mexican eatery for 17 years. She cited the poor economy and changing demographics as the reasons for shutting down the restaurant.

“Before the economy went bad, people would think of salsa, chips and carrots and would just come down to El Juan and order dinner,” she said. “Now people are cooking at home because it’s more economical.”

In other words, customers would rather buy enchilada sauce at the restaurant and take it home.

Santos is proud of continuing the El Juan tradition for as long as she has been able. The restaurant will close as not only one of the longest continually operated Mexican-themed restaurants in the area but also as one of the longest continually operated restaurants, period, in the San Diego region.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Santos, who purchased the restaurant in 1995. “What I’m going to miss most are the customers. I’ve always enjoyed meeting nice people and serving them. In fact, over the years, many customers have become my good friends.

“Altogether it was a happy experience without having any background in running a restaurant … I learned from my staff.”

Santos is hoping many long-time customers can reconnect with the restaurant in its final week of operation. The restaurant has always been popular with Sweetwater High School alumni and many SuHi grads have already made a final pilgrimage to the NC eatery as Santos put it with a smile, “to have their last chile relleno.”

El Juan is still at its original location of 2316 Highland Ave. It has hosted politicians, police and fire captains, TV personalities, clubs and small groups from both National City and surrounding cities over the years.

Many former South Bay residents, when traveling in from others areas of the country, have often taken a direct route from the airport to the NC restaurant to satisfy their particular craving for comfort food.

The restaurant touts its crispy “flying saucer” tortilla as being “world famous.”

It’s likely not an overstatement.

It’s hard for me to pick any one dish as my favorite at El Juan Café. I’ve sampled nearly all the combo plates from No. 1 to No. 15 and found them quite satisfying and delicious.

Quality ingredients have always been the hallmark of the restaurant. Santos’ personal favorites have been the ground beef enchiladas, fajitas and carne asada tacos (the latter two were her own additions to the menu).

Funny, but it’s the side dishes I guess I’ll always miss the most: the tangy salsa, tortilla chips and fresh guacamole. I’ve never found anything better tasting anywhere else and I think that was always how the restaurant got its hook into people. They came in for the condiments and wound up buying a meal.

But National City and, for that matter, the entire western side of Chula Vista is a lot different in 2013 than it was in 1946. El Juan was always popular with American diners who sought out a sit-down Mexican restaurant with a large variety on its menu.

My father began eating there after Sunday services at nearby Highland Avenue Baptist Church.

Now quick-serve taco shops with limited menus dominate the west side. To find fine Mexican food one now has to travel east of Interstate 805.

Besides the delicious, award-winning food served at El Juan, Santos said she is going to miss her second family — the restaurant’s valued employees.

Annie Orndorff worked at the restaurant for 57 years, serving loyal customers well into her 80s.

Santos had a surprise visitor from Maryland recently when Mike Jendrossek stopped by to dine and chat. His grandfather Frank owned El Juan Café in the 1940s; his grandmother Ida was the cook.

When the restaurant passed hands to Bea Torbett, the younger Jendrossek served as a bus boy there in the late 1960s.
He called the visit “a trip down memory lane.”

The walls of the restaurant remain filled with memorabilia from past decades.

Santos said one of the more enjoyable tasks was decorating the restaurant for various holidays: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Halloween.

Santos, who owns the building, said she is open to leasing or selling the restaurant, perhaps to someone else who would like to continue the El Juan tradition.

In the meantime, she said she hasn’t contemplated what she will do with her free time.

“I’m going to miss everything,” she said. “Going to work, eating the great food, going to the store to buy supplies, just making my day full with restaurant activity.”

Her major comfort, however, is taking home memories of all her customers.

“I see them everywhere,” she said.

Business hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call 477-6262 for information or visit www.eljuancafe.com.

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