August 22, 2018 09:23 PM
It's understandable if there are times during the Minnesota State Fair that Simon Mendez's appetite for tacos wanes at least a bit.
After all, he's around them nearly 24-7 during the fair's 12-day run.
"By the time we get about halfway through, I just have to go home at night and make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," he said with a chuckle.
But while Mendez himself may grow a tad weary, fairgoers have been lining up to consume the tacos, burritos and other items his family has been serving at their location in the Food Building for decades now.
When the State Fair gets underway Thursday, El Sol Mexican Foods will be marking its 50th anniversary there. According to State Fair records, that makes it one of at least seven food vendors who have reached the milestone. The group includes Fish and Chips Seafood Shoppe, near the Midway, which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The oldest food business at the fair is the Hamline Church Dining Hall, which dates back to 1897.
El Sol - which was first known as "Taco Inn" - was started by Mendez's father Refugio "Coke" Mendez and his wife Frances, in part by necessity, in 1968.
"My dad used to work for Swift & Company, a meat-packing plant in South St. Paul," he said. "But when it closed, he got caught in the middle. He was in his early 50s and he only had a fourth-grade education. So finding a job was fairly difficult for him at that point.
"He and my mom both loved to cook. So when they were scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do, they decided to take a chance. And they were able to convince Ken Wenzel, who ran concessions at the fair back then, to give them a shot."
The State Fair operation soon expanded as Mendez's father got into the concession business through O'Neil Amusements - taking his tacos and burritos on the road to county fairs and other events throughout the summer.
"He had a whole route he'd go on from Zimmerman to Big Lake to Cokato, out to Bird Island or up to Hinckley, down to Waseca and Owatonna," Mendez said. "He'd go all over the place and people really got to know him."
But the operation at the State Fair - first tucked into a corner inside the Food Building - remained the cornerstone.
Friends and family pitched in to help staff the business, including Simon, who has not missed a State Fair since the start.
"It used to get so hot in there," recalls Mendez of the early days in the 10-by-8-foot space at the original location where tacos cost 45 cents.
"We had no clue what we were doing at first. We chopped the lettuce, grated the cheese and diced the tomatoes all by hand. The amount of work and the time involved was incredible. It still is, but now everything comes pre-cut. That makes it a lot easier."
The business moved to its present location - facing outside the Food Building on the southwest side - in 1990. The new space was much larger - around 30-by-18-feet with a curved counter.
"Now we serve toward the outside and that's a lot nicer," Mendez said. "We look out at Ye Old Mill and we have a nice view of everyone walking by."
And over the years, they've developed a very loyal base of customers.
"I never leave the fair without having tacos at El Sol," Todd Nelson of Rogers said. "It's classic Mexican food. The meat is seasoned perfectly. And the combination of the tortilla lightly fried with the cool lettuce and tomatoes is great. The sauce complements the meat perfectly. I love the food there.
"There are times I will drag my friends across the fairgrounds to that stand just to try the tacos."
Mendez's mother died in 1992. But his father kept up his involvement in the business until stepping away in 2002 due to declining health.
He passed away in 2009. But Simon and his sons Carlo and Rico continue to run the operation. And this year, they'll break in a new employee in Mendez's 14-year-old granddaughter Iza.
"We'll be back to having three generations working here again," Mendez said.
Mendez, 70, was a registered nurse before retiring six years ago. His sons have jobs and lives of their own as well. So the summer schedule has been reduced from the days when his father had the business.
These days, they do a couple of county fairs and a handful of events at the fairgrounds each year.
But the State Fair remains the centerpiece.
"We open at 8 a.m.," said Mendez, who lives in St. Paul. "But I'll get here about quarter-to-seven. Then I don't get home until about 11 or 11:30 p.m. And by the time I do all the figures for the day, it's usually about midnight before I get to bed. Then I'm back up at 5 a.m. So I'm going on maybe five hours of sleep a night for 12 days straight."
Yet he said it remains a labor of love.
"There's no in between if you're doing this," he said. "You either love it or you hate it. And if you hate it, you probably won't do it very long. But I still love being here, and getting to see all the people I've had the chance to meet over the years.
"I'll keep at it as long as my health will let me."
Updated: August 22, 2018 09:23 PM
Created: August 22, 2018 11:37 AM
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