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Henry's Tacos stands down

Studio City taco stand does a last day of business at its longtime location. Owner Janis Hood will turn the business over to employee Omar Vega, who will relocate but keep the retro vibe.

January 12, 2013|By Nicole Santa Cruz and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Matt Harper, 22, of Valley Village and his English bulldog Pearl wait for their meal on the last day of business at Henry's Tacos in Studio City. The taco stand featuring Googie-style signage had operated in that location since 1961.
Matt Harper, 22, of Valley Village and his English bulldog Pearl wait for… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Janis Hood got her start at Henry's Tacos when she was 10.

Her mother allowed her to fasten caps on the hot sauce and serve RC Cola to customers.

Through 51 years, the family business served ground beef tacos and burritos to customers. But on Saturday, the Studio City neighborhood treasure — a favorite of actor Elijah Wood and comedian George Lopez — closed its doors.

The shutting of Henry's Tacos, named for Hood's grandfather, Henry Comstock, came after a yearlong saga with the landlord that Hood said began when she applied for a historic designation. She said the application sparked conflict, and the landlord refused to renew her lease.

"It's a very emotional day for me," Hood said Saturday.

In recent weeks, news of the closure prompted thousands of fans to sign an online petition to save the restaurant and inspired a Twitter hashtag (#SaveHenrysTacos).

At one point, a financial consultant and a TV writer were in talks to purchase the restaurant to keep it open. "It all just took us back to our childhood," said Matt Pyken, a Studio City TV writer who grew up eating at the stand, explaining why he sought to buy it with his former middle-school buddy. "We wanted it to be the same place."

But in the end, Hood decided to work with longtime employee Omar Vega, who wants to relocate the shop but keep the name. Hood said she plans to eventually sell the business to Vega. A preservation group has offered to store the stand's signage, she said.

On Saturday, customers formed a line down the sidewalk for a last meal, and Hood said the stand would keep serving them until the food ran out. Cathy McCroskey, a longtime customer, posed for a picture in front of the stand and pantomimed wiping away a tear. "This is a neighborhood icon," she said.

McCroskey and her husband, Steve, both 55, have lived in the Tujunga Village area since the late 1980s and came to pay one last visit to the stand they'd enjoyed for years. They took photos and, of course, ordered a bean and cheese burrito. They said the stand's Googie-style architectural design and history made it a neighborhood gem.

Near them, a large sheet of paper had been taped to a wall of the stand for people to jot their goodbyes.

"Sacred ground. We have been coming for four generations. It was the first food I ate and my kids ate. It saved my sister ... it was all she would eat when she was sick. Please prevail," wrote Kathryn Vanderveen.

"Henry, please keep the sign and stay in Studio City, we love you," another message said.

Vega, a 21-year veteran of the stand, said he hopes to do just that. He would like to retain the old location's ambience by using the old sign and menu and even hopes to replicate the colorful lettering on the stand's outside wall that spells "Henry's Tacos."

"I hope everything goes well," Vega said.

For Hood, the closure is the end of an era. She said the restaurant is where she grew up and recalled going to elementary school blocks away. After school, she'd walk to the stand to see her mother and linger there.

"A lot of the customers took me under their wing and were helpful to me," she said.

After Hood's mother, LeVonne Eloff, died in 2009 at 82, longtime customers shared stories with Hood, some of which she said she had never known. They told her, for example, that her mother and stepfather had sometimes used the honor system with customers.

Now, Hood said she's acting in the same vein, "paying it forward" by helping Vega get his start running the business, a move she sees as continuing her family's legacy.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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