After 45 years, Lenchita’s iconic Pacoima restaurant has weathered the pandemic, plans growth – Daily News
In her heyday, Angelita Alvarez Renteria could make 14 dozen handmade tortillas in an hour and was paid 14 cents at her job in a tortilleria.
She was in her late 20s when she arrived in the northeast San Fernando Valley with her husband and two children from Mexico.
She would go on to have eight more children and open Lenchita’s, a Mexican restaurant still known today for their handmade corn tortillas, low prices and generous portions.
She knew the people in the surrounding community couldn’t afford to pay high prices, so she kept them low. She didn’t want to cheat them.
Renteria was satisfied paying the bills and making a little extra to survive.
Her humble personality didn’t need a fancy car.
Today, the 92-year-old has slowed down a bit, but still shows up at the restaurant every day and slaps out a couple dozen tortillas.
Employees cook and grind their own corn on the spot, and Renteria can be found alongside them.
On Saturday, Sunday or rainy days, soup, tortillas and champurrado are hot ticket items.
All of the recipes were handed down from her mother.
There is no coveted recipe book.
The ingredients are written down and kept in a secret secured vault somewhere.
They are in her head, her heart and the heads and hearts of family members who have been a part of the business for three generations.
“I watched my mother cook,” Renteria said in Spanish, which was translated by her daughter, Fidencia Renteria, 61, who started at the restaurant when she was 17 years old and now manages it and works the cash register. “The recipes are simple.”
The nonagenarian said she doesn’t recall how she juggled a large family and successful business at the same time.
“Time flew by,” she said. “I felt strong about the business when I started. Work motivates me. I’m alive and happy. I’ll retire when the good Lord comes for me.”
Lenchita’s started in a building a few blocks down from the current one on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima where it operated for 12 years with three small tables.
It wasn’t uncommon to sit and eat across from a stranger, share a conversation. As the years went on, many began recognizing familiar faces generation after generation.
It’s not uncommon for regulars to see a relative or someone from the community they know.
But, COVID-19 put a heavy dent in the business and the camaraderie when it came to town uninvited.
They lost 60 percent of their sales. Some employees were let go.
During the initial outbreak, Renteria’s family forced her to stay home for nearly a month.
She didn’t like that one bit.
Her life, family and customers were at Lenchita’s, which she opened 45 years ago this month.
“I wasn’t scared of COVID,” she said. “I was sad. I couldn’t work. I’m always happy to see customers.”
Today, business has picked up.
In fact, the family is planning to expand the restaurant with an additional kitchen because there is a high demand for take-out.
About 25 of the 30 employees have returned.
Many of them have worked there for a decade or so.
“We owned our property,” said Art Luna, 43, the oldest grandson. “That’s what saved us. We didn’t have to pay rent like other restaurants that had to go out of business.”
Luna, who teaches culinary arts at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar and spent all but about six years of his life at the restaurant, said customers were telling them to raise their prices.
“That is never heard of in the restaurant business,” he said. “They didn’t want us to close. With persistence and determination, we got through (COVID).”
The restaurant is open seven days a week.
Luna recalled only one time they closed down the place for the day because of someone who was not a family member.
It was for a funeral.
For a longtime customer, “Don Mike” as he was called, who came in every day for a cup of coffee and a quesadilla.
“There’s a very friendly atmosphere here,” Luna said. “Many of us are family or feel like we’re family. It was the first time we closed for someone who wasn’t a family member.”