Tears well in Dolores "Lolita" Medina's eyes when she talks about her family's restaurant legacy in the Salt Lake Valley.
Medina, who with her husband, Roberto, runs El Farol restaurant in Midvale, is part of the third generation of the Torres family to serve up Mexican food favorites to hungry patrons.
"Our customers are friends, family," she said recently while taking a break from making sure everything was running smoothly as workers prepared for the dinner rush. "I'm the guardian and trustee of this tradition."
The Torres tradition started in the early 1900s, when her grandfather, Rafael Alvarez Torres, migrated from Mexico at the age of 17. Torres, from a small ranch near Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, worked on sugar beet farms in Idaho and Utah and on the railroad, then as a bellboy at the Temple Square Hotel.
His future wife, Dolores Rivera, or "Lola" as she was known to most, came from Chimal, Mexico, to the United States in 1911 and worked with a family in El Paso, Texas. Eight years later, she moved to Salt Lake City, where she met Rafael. Because of her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he became interested in the church and joined.
"Being very outgoing despite her broken English, Dolores made many friends and many people came to the Torres house to enjoy traditional Mexican food," it reads on the back of El Farol's menu. Later, that food would help bring customers flocking to the family's restaurant.
The couple, who had five children, were active in the Mexican Branch, which later became the Lucero Ward.
About 1945, Rafael Torres learned about an available restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City. With more determination than money, the Torreses opened El Charro, where Lola's recipes and Rafael's work in the kitchen attracted customers.
"People would come (to our house) for Sunday dinner," their son, Elias Torres, said. "My mother was known for her cooking, and she told my father about the various recipes she had. My father taught his cooks how to make various dishes. At first he did everything by himself, then he started hiring people and showing them how to make it."
Rafael operated El Charro at the downtown location for 20 years before leaving it in the care of his son, Rey, who later moved it to the west side of the valley before closing it.
In the meantime, Lola had passed away in 1961.
But Rafael's desire to operate a restaurant hadn't dimmed.
In 1967, he saw a vacant Dairy Queen with a "for rent" sign on State Street near 7200 South in Midvale. That sign came down, and a new one that said "El Farol" which means "The Lantern" went up.
He was back in business.
Dolores Medina says family legend is that Rafael's restaurant made only 50 cents the first day. But with tasty food and work ethic intact, he soon saw El Farol filling with customers.
The restaurant business was also calling to another of Rafael Torres' children, Regina, who with her husband, Jose Chavez, opened Rafael's in 1979 at Union Station in Sandy. The restaurant's name came from Regina's father and Jose's father, also named Rafael.
Jose Chavez worked for Rafael at El Charro.
"He had never been in a kitchen before, but he learned the recipes and added his own," Regina Chavez said. Plans for their restaurant developed.
The restaurant later moved to a location on 9400 South and then to its present location at Quarry Bend shopping center in Sandy. The new location, which opened July 24 after construction delays, is operated by two of the Chavezes' sons, Daniel and Miguel. Daniel Chavez designed it as an authentic mercado (market).
"A lot of our old customers have come back," Regina said. "(During construction) they would stop by and say, 'We're waiting for you to open.' They would say, 'You can do it, you can do it.' We really appreciate that."
Through the years, most of Rafael's employees have served LDS missions. "Many met each other working there and got married," Regina said.
Rebecca Curtis, who lives in Sandy and worked at El Farol early on, says Rafael Torres was amazing.
"He was soft-spoken, genteel, kind, well-mannered ... full of integrity," she said. "They're just a nice family ... they're really good people."
Through the years, Elias Torres had worked in his father's restaurants. While attending the University of Utah, he would stop in to help out. But his engineering career interests took him elsewhere, and he worked in Washington, D.C., and in California. But then "Dad asked if I could retire and help him out at the restaurant," he said.
The answer, of course, was yes, so this branch of the second Torres generation Elias and his wife, Luz also became heavily involved in the restaurant business. Luz had learned how to prepare the food her father-in-law had, and that's "basically what (El Farol) has now," Elias said.
In 1992, Dee's Family Restaurants bought the State Street location, and Elias decided to open El Farol at a new location. He and an architect designed the interior, and it opened at 115 W. 7200 South in 1992. That was five years into his and Luz's 20 years of running the restaurant, minus time out for an LDS mission to the Dominican Republic starting in 1995.
The family's involvement with missionary service has been strong from the beginning. Lola was a stake missionary in the Mexican Branch, where she taught Rafael.
Although he did not serve a full-time mission, "he was very interested in missionary work," said his daughter, Ruth Torres. "He didn't feel like he was very successful, because his father never joined the church. But we have always fed the missionaries when they came in (the restaurant)."
Ruth says Rafael was later called to teach Bible principles to prisoners being held in Salt Lake City. "He considered that a very special calling," she said.
Rafael also supported missionaries who were called from the Mexican Branch and later the Lucero Ward but couldn't pay, she says.
Elias continued his father's "feed-the-missionaries" policy. "Some customers would offer to pay for missionaries' meals," he said, "(but) we would not charge missionaries for meals."
His daughter Dolores remembers that well and sometimes would complain to her father that the missionaries were ordering the most expensive meals fajitas plus dessert. Elias would reply, "If Jesus were to come through that door, would you give him a good meal" or tell him what he could order?
That put her in her place, she says, and the missionaries never left hungry.
In 2007, Elias and Luz asked Dolores and Roberto if they would be interested in buying El Farol from them. Because Roberto had been a cook there, Luz had taught him how to prepare the food. And Dolores had spent many hours working there through the years bussing tables, being a cashier and waiting tables.
Roberto and Dolores were married in 1992 in the Salt Lake Temple after his mission to Guadalajara. They met at a singles dance, she says.
"When my parents wanted to sell the business, I wanted to run the other way," she said. "I knew what goes into it." But she felt a responsibility to keep it in the family.
"I knew she was interested," Elias said. "It was good it would stay in the family."
"I haven't regretted it," Dolores said, despite the 45 to 60 hours a week she and Roberto put in. She says the restaurant is their customers' special place to come for family gatherings. "We believe very strongly in the quality of the food."
That's where the recipes come in. She says most of the food is made from scratch with strict standards. The salsa is served heated simmered like a soup and "we serve old-style hard tacos. We make them here." And the sauce for the enchiladas is "unique passed down from Grandma Dolores," she said.
She says her mother, Luz, always was a stickler for quality. "She still comes in to eat and tells (Roberto) if something's not right," Dolores said.
"We go to eat there about every other week," Elias said. "The food still tastes about the same."
His favorite? "I usually eat enchiladas or tacos there," he said.
In spite of the hard work that comes with running a restaurant, family members continue another tradition: church service. Elias and Luz work in the Jordan River Temple, where he is a sealer. He has also served as a bishop and high councilor. They attend the Murray 2nd Ward (Spanish-speaking).
Dolores was released from the nursery in the Copper Hills 1st Ward recently. Roberto is still serving in the nursery.
Their two sons ages 15 and 9 also love food, and the older is "washing dishes (at El Farol) saving for his mission," Dolores said. "We had to earn our spending money ... and we're continuing that with our sons."
And what is the legacy of Rafael and Dolores "Lola" Torres?
"(The business) has provided three generations an honest living and fed three generations of customers," Dolores Medina said.
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