Micah Green/Dispatch Staff The Mexican Kitchen in Columbus marks its 50th anniversary this month. The restaurant is operated by Taco James and his family, and was founded by his parents, Woodrow and Alicia James, in 1964. Seated in the restaurant filled with memorabilia are, from left, Taylor and Kirby James and their father, Taco. Standing are Callie Mae Ellis, who has been with the restaurant for 38 years, and Jane James, Taco’s wife. Photo by: Micah Green/Dispatch Staff
May 14, 2014 10:15:05 AM
Taco James likes to joke that only the police, the IRS and his mama know his real name. (It's Rodger.) Fact is, he's done pretty well with his nickname since about ninth grade. That's when classmates who knew his family owned a Mexican restaurant christened him "Taco." There has been no need to try to change it, because that restaurant -- The Mexican Kitchen -- has been the center of his life's work since he was old enough to help wash dishes and bus tables for his mom and dad.
This month the James family celebrates the 50th anniversary of the restaurant founded in May 1964 by Taco's parents, Woodrow W. and Alicia James. The big Texan and his bride, who was originally from Monterrey, Mexico, started up the little eatery with $100 and recipes Alicia brought with her to America. In a spot on 15th Street South, Alicia made everything from scratch in the kitchen. Woodrow took care of the 12 tables and made periodic overnight runs to Dallas for the spices they needed, until the restaurant was in a financial position to order and stock them.
The homegrown business was built on Woodrow and Alicia's hard work, and their belief that you treat everybody the way you'd want to be treated yourself. The lessons were not lost on their son, who carries on the family restaurant with the help of his wife, Jane, son Taylor and daughter Kirby, and a faithful core staff. When the business moved to Highway 182 East in 1976, Callie Mae Ellis joined the team. Thirty-eight years later, she is still in the kitchen.
"She's my second mother. She's a big part of the backbone," said Taco. "My mother taught her everything, and to this day she does it the same way. If I try to make her do a shortcut, she reminds me this is how my mother did it."
Everyone associated with the restaurant -- workers and customers -- are "our family" the owner said, describing the extended group as tight-knit.
Jane and Taco had known each other since high school, but Jane still didn't know quite what she was signing on for on their wedding day.
"I had no earthly idea," she laughed. But now she is the sole maker of the The Mexican Kitchen's signature hot sauce; her mother-in-law taught her how.
"We knew she was part of the family when my mom gave her the recipe for the sauce," her husband grinned.
From its first day, the restaurant's menu has centered around Alicia James' recipes for Mexican food. They haven't been altered in any form, her son said. The menu has not changed in 50 years -- a few things added, but not changed. And everything is still prepared from scratch.
That a restaurant is still opening its doors on the strength of the same product it's served for half a century says something about the recipes and a loyal customer base.
"We're on our fourth generation of customers," said a grateful Taco. "We've got customers who have been with us through thick and thin. It's pretty amazing; at least once a week we'll have several generations of the same family in here."
A family business doesn't reach a 50th anniversary in a small town without having become something of a community staple. The Mexican Kitchen has welcomed some notable customers in its time -- KFC's Col. Sanders, country singer Red Sovine, numerous politicians and an Apollo astronaut, to name a few. For many, however, it may be best known for the covered wagon and team of six life-sized replica white horses that stood atop its roof for about 25 years.
Taco's father first saw similar horse figures at Knott's Berry Farm and tracked down the manufacturer. Then he went to work building a covered wagon to match. Taco remembers driving some of the nails himself. The wagon and team became an iconic landmark in east Columbus.
"It withstood a lot of senior classes that would get up there drunk," smiled Taco. "The police would call us at 3 or 4 a.m. My dad wouldn't press charges, but he'd give them a good talking to."
What it couldn't withstand were strong straight-line winds in 2001 that marked the beginning of the end for The Mexican Kitchen wagon team. For Taco, the loss is still a deeply sad one.
Other restaurant history, though, is preserved inside, in long glass-front cases filled with family (and some customer) memorabilia. A bean pot from the1950s Alicia's family brought from Mexico with them occupies a prominent spot. There are coins from many countries, a .410 shotgun that belonged to Taco's great-grandfather and a quilt Alicia stitched.
"Everything in here has a story behind it," Taco said.
Woodrow James passed away in 1982. Alicia James is no longer able to help at the restaurant she devoted her life to.
"But if she could, she'd still be in the back, doing things her way," her son said. What may be most remarkable is that everything Alicia did, she did with one arm; it was a condition from birth. Mashing beans, making tacos one by one in a cast iron skillet, running a kitchen, stitching a quilt; she did it all with one arm.
Her grandson, Taylor, now 20 and a student at East Mississippi Community College, remembers.
"She was always there; she was a hard worker, doing things most people with two arms couldn't do. She taught you how to not complain about a lot of things," he said.
Taco recounted his own lessons as a youngster. "When I would get mad at something she would ask me to tie my tennis shoe or do something else with one hand. If you want to be humbled, get up in the morning thinking of that."
"We miss her," said the James' daughter, Kirby, who as a little girl would watch her grandmother at work. She and Taylor didn't have an opportunity to know their grandfather, but both say they have gained an understanding of what a solid work ethic looks like by growing up and helping at the restaurant, just as their dad did. "And doing it with my family has been memorable, so it's really been fun," said Kirby, who graduates from Heritage Academy Friday night.
The James family appreciates the support of each and every customer throughout the years. Without them, and Taco's parents' hard work, the oldest family-owned Columbus restaurant would not still be here.
"It's an old cliche," Taco said, "but I just wish my parents could see me. All the credit goes to them, not to me. None of this would be possible without them ... We've been thoroughly blessed, every day."
Editor's note: The Mexican Kitchen, 400 Highway 182 E., is open Tuesday through Thursday 5-9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 5-9:30 p.m.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.