Tijuana Taco is as much Lakewood as lakes, oak trees and the military.
Sure, to someone new to the area, the connection might not make sense. The South Sound is located some 1,200 miles from Tijuana, Mexico, after all.
But talk to any longtime Lakewood resident, and he or she likely can recount fond memories of the family owned-and-operated restaurant that opened its doors in 1969.
The Tijuana Taco brand originally began in Scottsdale, Ariz., and thanks to a Northwest businessperson with franchise visions in mind, there were plans to open multiple locations in the South Sound and Portland, Ore., area.
The Lakewood restaurant – located at 10005 Bristol Ave. SW – opened and was an immediate hit with locals, who could order and munch on anything from tacos to bean tostadas to burritos.
As was the case then as it is now, the biggest draw for customers was the quality of food and customer service. For example, the restaurant fries its own shells and provides fresh produce on a daily basis. Of course, it uses 100-percent ground beef.
But even more so than the food is the experience. Employees know many customers on a first-name basis. For many years, a line of uniformed and non-uniformed service men and women would stretch out the door on military paydays.
At the time, a then-26-year-old Rocky Van Scyoc was hired as general manager for the Lakewood location, a place that would become a second home for him and his family the next 45 years.
Even as the restaurant changed owners and plans for the franchise’s expansion were scrapped, Tijuana Taco and Van Scyoc remained integral to the Lakewood dining scene.
In 1975, he and a business partner purchased the store from the parent company, which was being liquidated. Dennis Kleweno, the business partner, had initially considered other options for the Lakewood location, but he reconsidered once he realized its popularity and reputation for quality. Van Scyoc bought out his partner in 1983, taking over the location that he had managed for nearly 15 years.
Despite the changes (including attempts to open Tijuana Taco locations in the former Lakewood Mall and Lacey), it has stuck to its foundation of quality food and service. It didn’t try to over-expand or cut corners, even if the competition relied on those techniques.
Today, the Tijuana Taco in Lakewood is managed by Robert Gomez and wife Kelli (who is Rocky Van Scyoc’s daughter).
Rocky Van Scyoc retired in November 2015, after more than 45 years of serving customers.
Gomez says his father-in-law is humbled and grateful for the support in Lakewood, particularly the generations of families that come back to the store, year after year. Even in retirement, Rocky misses seeing the regulars.
Now, the taco, er, the torch has been passed on to Robert and Kelli Gomez, who are determined to keep the business in the family with the same quality service and high food standards. Tijuana Taco still offers the classics from the original menu, but it has added breakfast items and catering.
What the owners like most about the business is that it remains a mom-and-pop establishment with generations of customers and former employees coming back for more.
“It’s a family practice,” Robert Gomez says.
Judging by Tijuana Taco’s history and place in Lakewood’s dining scene, that won’t change anytime soon, and the community wouldn’t have it any other way.
For its decades of doing business in our community, the City of Lakewood recognizes Tijuana Taco as its March 2016 Business Showcase.