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Riverside's community table

For 50 years, the red sauce at Zacatecas has been making history.

May 26, 2013|By Susan Straight / Photographs by Douglas McCulloh

Vicky Medina delivered tortillas one morning in 1989 from La Fiesta Tortilleria in Riverside's Casa Blanca neighborhood to Zacatecas Cafe, on University Avenue in the Eastside. Love? In a stack of tortillas? Jon Medina was 23 then, working in his parents' restaurant. They got married a year later; now other tortillas are piled high in the refrigerator, jaunty as layer cakes. Medinas have spent their lives in this kitchen.

Oscar and Josefina Medina started Zacatecas in 1963, in a former doughnut shop with stools and a counter, a few blocks away. Back then, Josefina arrived at 3 a.m. to serve pancakes, ham and eggs to workers from the railroad nearby. She and Oscar moved behind the counter in a complicated dance, Oscar wide-chested, Josie diminutive. In 1985, they relocated down the street. Her wooden sign, La Cocina de Josefina, still hangs in the kitchen. In June, Speaker of the Assembly John A. Pérez will honor Zacatecas for its 50 years in Riverside. Now Jon and Vicky twirl past each other at their counter, where the red sauce fills small pitchers.

Robert Anderson grew up next door to the Medinas. "We traded biscuits for tacos all the time," he said. In 1969, he brought Mariko, whom he had known for one day; the previous night they'd seen "Bonnie & Clyde" at the Fox Theater. She had never eaten Mexican food. ("Oscar made a special burrito for me, with red sauce on top," she says, showing with her hands something the size of a small log.) Two days after that, Robert proposed, and three days later, she said yes.

Zacatecas is the kind of place where the social contract still works, face to face — where you'll see city council members, Japanese American grandmothers, white contractors in dust-covered Dickies and, at my own table, my brothers-in-law. Their father, General Sims, picked up Oscar every night for their shift at Norton Air Force Base servicing aircraft. Oscar slept a little in the morning, and came to the restaurant.

Now Vicky bends to hear an abuela whose hair is covered by the sheerest chiffon scarf. Maybe she has served a million tortillas at Zacatecas. Jon eats breakfast at the counter, surrounded by customers as two of his daughters, the next generation, put the small bowls of red sauce on each table like a benediction.

Susan Straight and Douglas McCulloh have collaborated on "More Dreamers of the Golden Dream," an exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum (through July 23).

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