Clarita Trujillo greets a customer as she hands him food from Tacos Clarita.… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
The grill is sizzling by the time Clarita Trujillo of Tacos Clarita steps onto the sidewalk. She's got her apron on, her lips painted red, and she's ready to cook.
"Orale, muchachos!" she tells a few boys who roll past on skateboards. "Behave yourself. Or what's your mom going to say?
"Come here and taste my enchiladas. They're good for you."
Trujillo will talk to anyone along Huntington Drive in El Sereno — to Doña Ana, Doña Juanita and Doña Lupita, to the bakers, the shop owners and the street sweepers.
PHOTOS: Recipe for success
"So long as they don't have a fuchi face, nose turned up, looking the other way." she says. "Why not stop and say hello?"
At 76, Trujillo is used to being in the spotlight. Years ago, it was her spark, her ability to instantly chat up anybody, at any time, that made her and a little restaurant she used to own in Boyle Heights famous, at least on Spanish TV.
She charmed audiences on morning talk shows. She shared her recipes on the evening news. Her pambazos and huaraches, traditional dishes from her native Mexico City, drew crowds, even celebrities to her restaurant. They lined up for the food, but just as important, they came to see Trujillo.
Then, after 11 years, it all went away. She lost her lease and had to shut down Tacos Clarita. Trujillo disappeared.
Few of her once-loyal customers know that just five miles from the old spot, she and her family opened a new version. The restaurant, located between a tile supplier and a clothing shop, is barely surviving. A few weeks ago, Trujillo worked all day and made $5.
Still, the grandmother of 32 keeps on cooking. And keeps on talking — at the restaurant and out on the sidewalk — hoping some day soon, people will discover her and her food all over again.
When she was 50, Trujillo had a good job in Mexico City working for an encyclopedia company. But she was curious to see what lay on this side of the border. So she came to the United States on a tourist's visa. (She overstayed the visa for more than two decades and is now in the final stages of becoming a permanent resident.)
"I pictured lots of tall, blond people with big, blue eyes walking in clean streets," she said. "I thought I was going to heaven."
She and her husband landed in South Gate, where they slept on a fold-out bed in a relative's living room. Trujillo began to work, caring for elderly people. She also sold sodas in the park for 50 cents.
She knew nothing about starting a business, but she loved to cook and loved people.
She decided to try her luck at a community fair, selling tostadas de tinga, like the ones hawked on the streets of Mexico City. She placed a pot of shredded beef and a bowl of salsa on a plastic table, then waited for customers, confident that she would sell out. She hardly sold a thing.
Next, she opened a food stand in a tin shack in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, and this time created a small following for her tacos, huaraches and gorditas. Business was great for six years, then the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health caught on and had had her things confiscated — her grill, her refrigerator, her tables and her food. The second time that happened, Trujillo walked away.
With $15,000 in savings, she bought a restaurant, a tiny place with four tables located in a carwash. It was in Hollywood, two blocks from the Walk of Fame, and it had previously been owned by Humberto Luna, a popular Spanish radio personality.
"I thought his name alone would have people knocking down our door," Trujillo said.
But all that came through were rich folks with big, shiny cars that needed washing.
"They ordered a soda or a glass of water, but never looked at my food," she said.
Three months later, Trujillo was broke.
Still, she was too stubborn and loved her food too much to give up entirely.
Ever since she was a young girl, her quesadillas, her soups and her barbecue had beguiled people — at her children's school, at the market and at the encyclopedia company.
Food was the one thing her stepmother, Mama Elena, taught her to take seriously.
The first time Trujillo was left in charge of the kitchen, she burned the pork, burned the chiles and forgot to boil the beans. Mama Elena came home and beat her hands red with a metal spoon.
"She always told us," Trujillo said, "'Eating is a ceremony. Everything has to be perfect.'"
And everything that was started had to be finished.
So Trujillo tried selling her food once more, this time at rented space in Boyle Heights. Customers liked her cooking. One woman enjoyed her enchiladas so much that she invited her daughter to the restaurant.
Trujillo saw the young woman and immediately recognized her. She was Jessica Maldonado, host of "Hola Los Angeles," a Spanish TV morning show. Trujillo served her nearly everything on the menu — her mulitas, her huaraches, her fried taquitos and a giant sope. Then, like a proud aunt, she sat by her side and watched her savor every bite.