Estrada’s – From Tamale Parlor to Spanish Kitchen
It started as Estrada’s Tamale Parlor, and when the family-owned restaurant closed its doors after more than three-quarters of a century, it had become a Visalia legend. The iconic eatery is gone now, but it had a remarkable run and impacted the lives of so many people.
The Estrada family and its connection to the food scene in Visalia began with Louise Estrada. She was born in Los Angeles in the early 1870s to the Farquero family, and came to Visalia in 1880 as a young girl. In 1889 she married a local carpenter named Manuel Estrada. Louise worked in a cannery and also sold fruits, vegetables, and tamales around town. In addition, she worked part time at Pablo’s Tamale Parlor. After Pablo Vielma died, Louise and her husband helped with the business for a time.
In 1913 Manuel had a stroke and died, leaving his pregnant wife to care for their eight children all still living at home. Life was hard for the family, but the community rallied to help them. Adolph Sweet offered the new widow whatever she needed from his store and John Morgan offered the same from his meat market.
All of the generosity overwhelmed Louise so much, she published her thank you in the Visalia Daily Times newspaper saying, “We wish to thank our friends for their kindness in our recent bereavement and during the illness of our husband and father.”
But Louise knew as the sole bread winner she needed more than handouts to support her large family. She had worked in the food business for years so she mentioned the possibility of opening a restaurant to her children. They wholeheartedly supported the idea and offered to help. In about 1914 she opened a small restaurant, actually a tamale parlor, believed to be first located near Church and Acequia streets, but eventually she moved her business to 202 S. Court Street. Her specialties were tamales, enchiladas, and beans. She called her cuisine “early California.”
Her parlor proved to be so popular, she outgrew the space. The Milan Vuvovich home on Main and West streets became available, so in May 1924, Estrada’s Tamale Parlor relocated to the 414 W. Main Street address on the far west end of the commercial district. The newly refurbished residence, turned
restaurant, was set up to accommodate 150 guests. Eventually the restaurant went from a tamale parlor to Estrada’s Spanish Kitchen, although tamales continued to be an important part of the menu.
On Saturday, Jan. 9, 1932, tragedy struck the Estradas. Louise, family matriarch and Visalia restaurateur, suffered a heart attack while attending a golden wedding anniversary in Tulare. She was rushed to the hospital and by 11:30 p.m. that night she died, the victim of “chronic myocarditis.” Her funeral service was held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Visalia and she was interred in the Catholic section of the Visalia Cemetery.
The restaurant business stayed in the Estrada family and various members took over its operation. Over the years, the family restaurant expanded to other California cities including Fresno, Modesto, Colma, Santa Barbara, Oakland, and Bakersfield.
In 1958, two of the Estrada children, Manuel Estrada Jr. and his sister, Mrs. Raymond Gonzales, who co-owned the downtown Visalia restaurant, decided they needed larger quarters, so they had a restaurant built at 1545 S. Mooney Blvd. They opened the doors for New Year’s Eve, but the official grand opening was Thursday evening, January 15, 1959.
The new ranch style building made quite a hit in Visalia. Designed by Gabriel Castela of Palm Springs and constructed by Duarte & Duarte of Visalia, the nearly 6,000 square foot building cost a little over $75,000. The lot was huge measuring about 161’ x 663’. The interior included a banquet room, main dining room, and a cocktail lounge called the Charro Room. The bar in the restaurant was a first for Estrada’s. A large fireplace gave the bar a homey feel, and the cushioned chairs, tables, and bar added to customer comfort. The bar was sunken about two feet below the main floor giving the area an elegant and interesting look.
Estrada’s in Visalia had many loyal customers over the years. Deanna Wells shared a story. After living in Visalia for a number of years, her family relocated to Minnesota. Years later Cliff, her husband, and a business associate were traveling between northern California and Los Angeles and decided to stop at their family’s old favorite eating place— Estrada’s. They detoured into Visalia and found the restaurant closed. Cliff went to the back door and Bud Estrada greeted them and opened just for them. They had a great meal and appreciated the special treatment. Deanna called the Estrada family “one of the best you could ever know.”
Tom Rey and his family lived in Visalia and they also have fond memories of the restaurant. He remembers his Aunt Dorothy and her special attraction to the food there. She went to school with the Estrada girls and after she moved away, she would occasionally return home and eat at the restaurant. Between trips she would even have Estrada tamales sent back to Detroit, Michigan.
For more than three decades Estrada’s Spanish Kitchen occupied its place on Mooney Blvd. On August 28, 1992, the owners filed for bankruptcy, victims of a bad economy. The restaurant closed its doors and the property went on the market. Later that year, Red Lobster began efforts to take over the property and eventually tore down Estrada’s and built their own restaurant on the site.
For 78 years, Estrada’s of Visalia had a legendary charm that attracted so many and it all began with Louise Estrada. Her gracious personality, limitless generosity, delicious food, and good business sense formed the foundation for this popular gathering place.
Thanks to Gilbert Gia for his biographical material that helped me immensely.