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An oasis of affordable Mexican specialties

The businesses along Foothill Boulevard have seen some turnover in recent years, but don’t expect El Ranchero to go anywhere soon.

“At this point, there’s no retirement,” owner Jose Haro, 49, said. “My plan is to stay here as long as I can.

This is good news for fans of the restaurant, which for more than 20 years has provided Claremont with an oasis of affordable Mexican food and—considering the selection of more than 60 tequilas—a veritable temple of distilled agave nectar.

Mr. Haro, who personally favors Don Julio tequila, has been known to raise a glass to his mentor Nick Montoya, a former Claremont restaurateur who saw his potential.

Mr. Haro grew up on a farm in a small town called El Durazno (“the peach”), in Zacatecas, Mexico. He had two older brothers who had immigrated to the United States and were living in southern California. “They went back to Mexico, and they were very dressy people with a lot of money. I was wanting to do that,” he said.

At age 16, Mr. Haro left for the United States where he was able to locate his brothers, one of whom had settled in Pomona. He landed his first job as a dishwasher at the Claremont smorgasbord Griswold’s. Soon, he was preparing omelettes at the buffet.

He next got a job at Don Salsa. One of three Mexican restaurants owned by Mr. Montoya, it was located in the Old School House, in the spot most recently occupied by Casa de Salsa. After a few years, Mr. Montoya promoted Mr. Haro, then 24, to head cook. He was determined to impress his authority on a kitchen full of skeptical chefs.

“You don’t play with them. Don’t let them give you a nickname,” he said. “Respect is important. Cooks have nicknames, but you call them by their real names. After three months, everything was straightened out.”

Mr. Haro was next promoted to general manager, but his boss encouraged him to aim higher. “Every Monday morning, he’d mention to me, ‘You’ve got to have your own restaurant, and it’d better be quick,’” he recalled.

Don Salsa closed its doors in 1994, but Mr. Haro kept in touch with his old boss. When a Foothill Boulevard property came up for lease, Mr. Montoya assured the owner that any restaurant run by Mr. Haro would be a success.

Mr. Haro took out a loan on his house and maxed out his credit cards, then jumped into the restaurant business. “People knew me from Don Salsa, so we made money from the first time I opened the doors. Everyone followed me,” he said. 

What they found was home-style cooking made from scratch, much of it inspired by Mr. Haro’s mother Pascuala. “Every single day she was making beans and rice, chicken enchiladas—she cooked everything,” he said.

A colorful, homey atmosphere adds to the ambiance. There are crayon-bright walls, wall-hung sombreros and serapes and art including a painting of a kneeling woman who, hard at work pressing tortillas, has allowed one blouse strap to slide carelessly off her shoulder. 

The menu is characterized by large portions and good taste. Diners start with chips and salsa, both green and red, then select typical Mexican comfort food—tacos, enchiladas and the like—seafood selections or regional specialties. One of these, “Carne con Salsa Zacatecas,” is a tribute to Mr. Haro’s home state.

Mr. Haro is a numbers guy. He notes that the restaurant serves about 4,500 customers a week and that, between students, professors and staff, about 30 percent of his business comes from the Claremont Colleges. He is proud to report that his kitchen staff prepares 250 chile rellenos every other day. So in 2006, he couldn’t help but notice that business had dropped a bit. 

“We were having a very slow Wednesday, so I thought I’d better do something drastic,” he said.

He introduced 99-cent margaritas on Wednesdays and by the second week, there was a line of people waiting to get in the restaurant. Margaritas, blended or on the rocks, remain one of El Ranchero’s biggest draws. If you want the best price, visit the restaurant Monday through Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. when margaritas are $1.49, or on Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. when they cost $1.99.

The restaurant business has been good to Mr. Haro. He and his wife Leticia have a home in Upland, and his father, 83, lives with them. They also have access to a top-notch school district. His daughter Brenda, 22, is a Claremont High School graduate and his 13-year-old son Joseph is at El Roble. 

Like all business owners, however, he works long hours.

Mr. Haro puts in 12- to 14-hour days and only takes a vacation every other year. He goes back to Mexico then, spending a few days with family back in El Durazno before heading to Puerta Vallarta. “It’s a place everyone needs to visit,” he said of the coastal resort city.

On a rare day off, Mr. Haro might travel to Tijuana to see mariachis perform or take in a Dodger’s game. His other great passion, besides baseball, is one he doesn’t have to leave the job for. He’s a news junkie, with CNN playing on the big screen over the bar nearly as often as sports.

What does he think of the current political scene, given that President elect Trump is widely perceived as anti-immigration? “I’m not terrified by him, but I’m terrified of his mouth,” Mr. Haro laughed. 

Mr. Haro has thrived with El Ranchero, but he wants his daughter, who is majoring in business administration at Cal Poly Pomona, to know the truth about the restaurant business.

“I tell her it’s a very hard life. You have to give all your hours and all your heart. It’s like you’re married to your restaurant,” he said. “If you don’t like working in a restaurant, you can’t do it.

El Ranchero is located at 984 W Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. For information, call (909) 624-8824 or visit elrancheroclaremont.com.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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