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Matriarch Of Roberto's Taco Shop Dies

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Dolores Robledo co-founded one of the nation's first Mexican fast-food chains in the country. She was 90 years old.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The matriarch behind San Diego's fast food, Mexican restaurant chain Roberto's will be laid to rest today. Delores Robledo died earlier this month at age 90, she worked with her husband, Roberto to develop the recipes and locations for one of the nation's first chains of taco shops. Her lifetime of hard work brought success to her family, created an iconic San Diego business and brought a new popularity to Mexican food in California and beyond journey may as Pam Craig and feature writer at the San Diego union Tribune, who wrote an obituary for Dolores Robledo and Pam. Welcome to the pro.

Speaker 2: 00:39 Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

Speaker 1: 00:41 Joining us is San Diego food writer, Mario Cortez, Mario. Welcome to the program. Thank you, Pam. Tell us more about the life of Dolores Robledo.

Speaker 2: 00:50 Oh, well, I spoke with three of her children earlier this week for the obituary that I wrote for the union Tribune and, um, they, they all talked about her as a very loving and hard working mother. She was a mother of 13 children. Um, she and her late husband, Roberto, both grew up in this tiny ranching village in a town called saddle SIM one day, a lotto in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. And he came to the United States in 1944 at the age of 14 to, to, uh, pick cotton in Texas. And he was an itinerant worker. He worked in the [inaudible] program in California for awhile, and he would go back and forth to visit, uh, visit Delores in Mexico. And they had seven children by the time she immigrated to the, to California back in, uh, 1957. And, uh, they eventually moved to San Diego and, uh, opened up a tortilla Rhea. And that was the beginning of their restaurant empire. Yup.

Speaker 1: 01:50 What did you learn about how Roberto's got started?

Speaker 2: 01:54 Well, uh, it, they started out with a tortilla Rhea and San Ysidro. She would get up at the predawn hours and go in and make the tortillas with some of their older children. And then he would drive a delivery route of these tortillas to, uh, San Diego, Mexican restaurants. And one of the stops that he made was delivering tortillas to the immigrant detention center in OTI Mesa for the U S border patrol. And the border patrol agents would ask him, Hey, can you package up some beans and rice and bring those along as well? And they got the idea, well, why don't we open our own Mexican restaurant rather than purchase this material from restaurants? And when one closed on his route, he bought the lease for it. And, um, they opened their first Mexican restaurant with family recipes that they had, and they didn't the first few restaurants, they just kept the names. One of them was called LA Lomita. One was a Frosty's restaurant, but when they got to the fifth restaurant, which was in Talmudge area, uh, it was called Jessie's burger stop or something like that. And they thought, well, we can't have Jesse's burger stop split. We got to buy a new sign. And she said, well, why don't just name it after you. And, and they called it Roberto's and the rest is history

Speaker 1: 03:03 Because history Mario. So as a food writer, what do you think made Roberto so popular in San Diego?

Speaker 3: 03:09 You got to start with the, uh, the lineage of the food that they were offering. It's all high quality ingredients that the Robledo did start in distribution. You know, mrs. Robledo made the tortilla it's at the beginning, they used their family recipes in the restaurants. They were all well received at the beginning. And, um, eventually they started offering this up poor man burrito at a very low price point and, uh, you know, just through volume and they kind of solidified their precedence. And, uh, eventually, you know, as the chain evolved, it came to kind of define the San Diego style taco shop. You know, like taco shops, aren't quite decliner style taquerias. They're not quite sit down Mexican food, they're their own genre. Um, you know, they focus on the role tacos. They focus on the larger burritos. Uh, they have combo plates and, uh, as time went on, you know, like the California burrito emerges and it just kind of sets the standard. It sets the pace for all the other, um, San Diego style taco shops that were to come. And a lot of them were opened by the family members and, uh, relatives of [inaudible].

Speaker 2: 04:23 Well, according to Reynaldo, who was the youngest son of Roberto, he told me on Monday that as the family's business grew and the number of restaurants grew, he wanted to provide jobs to other people from his state and in Mexico. And, um, each of the children, as they got old enough, got their own restaurant, their own Roberto's. Um, and then one of his cousins came up and he opened a Roberto's, but the cousin started changing the recipes. Um, and Roberto did not feel that that represented the quality of what he thought Roberto's should represent. So he said, you need to change the name. If you're going to change my recipes, the story goes that his cousin didn't have money to change the Roberto sign. So he got a can of red paint and repaint and just the first two letters, um, and turned it into an Albertos. And after that, anyone who came to San Diego that was not a family member and was going to open a restaurant, they had to change the name. So that's where the Gilberto's and the Philly Bertos and the everything else Bertos. And, and, uh, what I was told is that there's more than 70 different variations of the Roberto's name.

Speaker 1: 05:34 Ask you, let me ask you Mario, specifically about the California burrito, which has become a standard and apparently was, um, invented by Roberto's

Speaker 3: 05:44 It's unknown, which Roberto's had it. First of all, I've heard that the one in national city had it first that the one in Talmage headed first, but then we'll start with the Daniel's book taco you USA. Um, the reveals that they had it before, anyone else it's unknown, which cook at which Roberto's location invented it, but around the mid eighties, um, all the locations had it.

Speaker 1: 06:09 Pam, do you have a fond memory of eating at Ruby?

Speaker 2: 06:12 Yes. Yes. I, well, I grew up mostly in San Diego. My father was in the Navy and we arrived in the early seventies. And, um, you know, when you're a poor college student, you know, you sort of live on Roberto's burritos. So, uh, yeah, cardia side burrito's are where my favorite back in the old days. And they're still my favorite. And I do think Roberto's quality just like Margo said is superb for the price. Mario, do you have a favorite?

Speaker 3: 06:37 So I moved here from Tijuana when I was nine. And I remember the first time I saw a Roberto's, um, it was a Roberta's two blocks over from where I used to live, uh, back in golden Hill. And I remember walking in and like seeing the big burritos, you know, seeing like their take on a role tacos, which is a very into like the Mexican flour. Uh, and, uh, it just kinda showed me how different Mexican food can be North of the border while still feeling very familiar, uh, North of the border pretty much my whole life ever since it's just a familiar sight, you know, it lets me know that I am here in San Diego, that I am home and that, you know, if I'm hungry, I can just stop in and get salad burritos. I can get like some covenants out of fries that some of these San Diego standards that I just, I just love.

Speaker 1: 07:28 Uh, Pam Roberto Robledo died in 1999. So Delores has been head of this family for quite some time. How is the Robledo family remembering their names?

Speaker 2: 07:40 Well, as you mentioned, there was going to be a Catholic, a Memorial mass for her this afternoon. I'm in Chula Vista followed by her burial and, uh, Benita. But what this, what the children told me is that the way they remember their mother is gathering for big family meals like Christmas and Thanksgiving. So she said that all of the siblings are going to be gathering for a big family events at her home. In, in Escondido,

Speaker 1: 08:05 We say big, we may mean big. She leaves a lot of people behind

Speaker 2: 08:09 That's, right? I guess for her 85th birthday, there were more than 200 people gathered for her party.

Speaker 1: 08:15 Speaking with Pam Kragan from the San Diego union Tribune and San Diego food writer, Mario Cortez. Thank you both so much for speaking with me.

Speaker 2: 08:23 Thank you for having me anytime.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.