It wasn't just about the burrito. It wasn't just about the sauce, be it green or red, or anything else on the menu. It was, and will be, about remembering, about tradition; about a piece of the past shiny and new again.
It was Naugles, and it was open again in Orange County, CA, and damn it, I was going. Southern California was giving me every reason to: It was 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky on July 30th, 2015; I had a 2015 Indian Chief Vintage in Fire Engine Red with white wall tires, leather bags with fringe on loan just sitting in the garage; it was under 15 minutes away by freeway at the intersection of the 405 and Euclid (18471 Mt. Langley, Fountain Valley, CA); and it was almost two o'clock and I hadn't eaten. Could the rumors be true.?
Getting to the new Naugles
So I hopped on the bike and drove down the 405, the new enormous interchange at the 405/605/22 funded by the bail out plan to put Americans back to work finally open, in the car pool lane looking oh so cool in my matching jacket and viola! within a few tracks of Beats One (still very up in air on that) I'm on the Euclid off ramp going right on Ellis and two blocks down, that logo. Oh, that Logo.
I park the bike, creating a sensation, and see the line down the side of the industrial park, against the unforgiving concrete wall, and think, well, you drove here....
"I'm 21, so I really had no idea," the counter girl stated as she looked bewildered by the line going around the building....constantly. But more on the inside much later.
No idea? Well first, a Wikipedia Lesson, as I could say it no better:
Naugles was founded by former Del Taco employee Dick Naugle. The first Naugles restaurant was located at the southwest corner of Fourteenth St. and Brockton Ave. in Riverside, California (now a Del Taco). Dick's motto was "Prepare food fresh. Serve customer fast. Keep place clean!"
Harold Butler purchased Naugles in 1979 when the chain consisted of three restaurants. The chain was expanded by a system of non-exclusive franchises, which later was ruled unlawful by a federal court. Butler built Naugles up to 225 restaurants by 1986, when he sold the chain to Collins Foods International. Naugles merged with Del Taco in 1988. A few of the Naugles menu items, such as those with the "Macho" designation, found their way into the regular Del Taco menu. Also, the Naugles Taco Sandwich (Del Taco called it a "bun taco") can still be ordered from Del Taco even though it does not appear as an item listed on the menu.
The last four remaining Naugles locations, all in Nevada, closed in 1994-1995. In the Las Vegas area, 3 restaurants closed circa 1994/95. The last Naugles location, in Carson City Nevada, on Hwy 50 East, closed in 1995. Today that former Naugles location is a Chinese restaurant called China East
So that's the history. But it's much more than that. It's college kids that couldn't afford anything else. It's late night gorging after a night of partying. It's nurses on the late shift getting a bun taco on the way home or someone on the early shift getting a steak, egg and bean burrito on the way to work.
For me, it was, and yes, I know, I know, it was Macho Combo Burrito with green sauce, cheese burrito (which is NOT a Quesadilla) and hot fudge chocolate shake of which 1/2 of each would survive to be breakfast the next day eaten around 2am on the way home from a various club at Magnolia and Garden Grove Blvd. in Garden Grove, CA. Or it was a combo cup of beans and cheese and sauce for lunch because it was under $2. It was the 80s, it was AIDS, Reagan and scandal after scandal. It was being in your 20s. Meeting new friends who would become old ones, starting fires that would either burn brightly or burn out....it was the beginning.
"Can you imagine, we are as old as our parents were then, it just doesn't feel old..." a Hispanic man who had driven to Naugles from Santa Ana said in dismay, "I'm 46 and it seems just like yesterday I was at the Naugles in my neighborhood..."
There was a lot of reminiscing in that line, that very, very long line in the hot summer sun. I rearranged the line to be in the shade and got everyone in trouble from a grumpy lady at the architect company next door. She complained the line was in front of her business. I went to speak to her. Bad decision.
"You know, it's a special day, I'm sure the lines will die down, it's just I heard someone passed out in line this morning and there's some people in line in the 70s so if we stay far away from the door on the grass..."
"We are on the phones in here," she said in the dimly lit room as a man on the phone exited. "We shouldn't have to endure the noise..." I thanked her and went back and got in line. We worked it out because everyone in the line was there for more than food. They were there because the food represented a time; an era. A time when people wouldn't be so touchy about a simple line of people seeking shade.
The line. Owner Christian Ziebarth knew he was on to something but THIS much something, well, was overwhelming.
"Thank you all for waiting, for being here and being a part of this," he said to our group as we all were chatting about why some of us had been in the line for over two hours. "We've run out of food more than once, have people constantly cooking and running back and forth to the restaurant supply as fast as we can...you all are just so great to be here."
And everyone wanted to thank him for the chance to wait in line for a bean and cheese burrito, a combo cup, a taco, cheese burrito or fountain drink. Hugs, selfies, group photos, all immediately going up on social media causing even more to show up.
Ziebarth came to the restaurant as a fan that ate there and was reminiscing about it. "I mentioned the original Naugles in my food blog at the time," he told me as we chatted waiting. "I was overwhelmed with comments about it. So I thought hmmm. I contacted Del Taco about bringing the menu and the brand back. There was some interest at first and then those lines pretty much went dead."
But Ziebarth didn't let it end. He found out when the Naugles trademark expired and when it did he was waiting. He registered it away from Del Taco, legally as a court would decide just this year, and in doing so had every right to use it. He had begun doing pop up Naugles experiences, recreating the menu from scratch of this iconic eatery.
"It has been incredible, these last few days, the stories, the people, the ideas," he said, as he darted off to take out boxes now empty. The sauce, the beans, all made there.
I arrived at 2:30 and my order was taken at 5:00. When I got near the counter they stopped taking orders because the ticker tape order machine in the kitchen was to the floor with orders that needed to be filled.
I was missing my friend Ken Pearson. It was with him I first ate at Naugles and ate there with him until we both moved from the area. He couldn't make it down and knew there'd be a line. He was right.
"May I take your order," the lovely 21 year old asked finally.
"I'll have a Macho Combo Burrito with green sauce, a Cheese Burrito with red sauce and a vanilla creme soda please..."
"So one Hombre Combo..." she repeated.
Ahh. Seems Del Taco gets custody of the word Macho on the menu in this custody battle. Change.
I sit to begin to wait again. With others. And we all talk, chat, laugh. Not many on their gadgets except to take photos or the make friends envious. But talking. About life then, life now. About food and what it meant in their life.
It arrives. And I bite in to that cheese burrito and that red sauce with the melted cheese...could it be? Yes, yes it was. Ziebarth and his team have done it. You can't fool a sense as profound as taste. You KNOW you're mother's lasagna (which I would give anything in the world to taste again), your dad's this or your wife's or husband's that. You know it when you taste it.
This was Naugles. This is Naugles.
I ate half, as always. Then the Hombre Combo one pounder. That first bite. The green sauce. The beans, oh, the beans, lard free but delicious.
"Well, is it OK?" Ziebarth asked as my taste buds went back to 1983. "Are the beans and sauce close," he genuinely wondered?
Close? Oh no, you got this. And everyone around me eating agreed. This was, is the taste that we remembered so well.
As for the problems, well, this is the very first baby step in what Ziebarth hopes grows back in to the 200+ chain that it once was.
"In Southern California, everyone remembers them in their neighborhood, it's what it was about, great food, fast, in your neighborhood. We'll get the fast down, I think we've got the food and more to come, so this is all great," he said, this time coming in for more water for those waiting in line.
I eat a little less than half of the combo chicken Hombre, wrap the rest, put the leftovers in the saddle bag on the Indian (which was such a topic of conversation as well) and look on as the line remains around the new formation in the shade, people chatting, waiting, laughing, remembering and yes, eventually eating.
And I remember. Am I where I thought I'd be at this age? Are any of us.
But I was lucky to be here, that day, to share, with those people, if only for a moment, a happier reminder of a past that somehow even though filled with tragedy and challenges just as this one, seemed more promising some how. Because we were younger. As for the young ones, they either grew up hearing stories or eating it as a child or wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. The old and the new. Reinvention and reinvigoration.
For the soft opening continuing it's catch as you can. They open at 11am right now, although they will be adding in breakfast. They close around 7pm but the food can run out. Check the Naugles FansFacebook page for updates.
In Southern California burritos, tacos, and other such delicious incarnations can be found everywhere. But there was only one Naugles. It's obvious from the turnout that when it went away it took a piece of Orange County and the surrounding area with it. And now, they want that piece back, and can get it.