As a teenager, Melchor Moreno Jr. thought getting his driver’s license would be a door to independence. Instead, what could have been rides to the mall with his high school football teammates became routine trips to pick up masa, chiles and meats for his family’s restaurant.
The year was 1994, and Melchor’s mother, Martha Moreno, had quit her job at a textile factory to open La Chispa de Oro Mexican restaurant on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights.
“It was tough at the beginning,” said Moreno who, along with her husband would open the restaurant at 6 a.m. and close at 1 a.m. With such a demanding schedule, Moreno was forced to watch after Melchor and his siblings while working at the restaurant””which sometimes meant the children chipping in to help.
“We didn’t have money to pay for someone to help us. We needed to”¦leave everything clean for the next day to start again,” said Moreno.
Growing up at the restaurant, Melchor saw the familial relationships his parents built with customers. Under his father’s rules, everyone who came in for a meal was to be treated like family; and his mother made it her responsibility to serve only authentic traditional Mexican dishes that reminded people of home cooking.
When La Chispa de Oro first opened, customers would order food to go instead of dine in because of its small size. Those that wanted to eat at the restaurant would wait in a line that snaked out the entrance for one of the handful of tables crunched up by the kitchen.
After 15 years of the same format, the restaurant expanded and doubled their seating area in 2009. Although it was now able to accommodate larger crowds, the restaurant’s signature, the food””especially the handmade tortillas”” and the service, did not change, says Melchor.
Some people when they try to expand, like when we expanded, they try to steer away from what started their business and that leads to their downfall,” said Melchor.
Unlike businesses that refrigerate bulk food until it is needed, La Chispa de Oro prides itself for making fresh food daily. “We cook our caldo de pollo, caldo de res every day fresh,” said Melchor.
As soon as servers take orders for dishes like chiles rellenos, mole or enchiladas, the cooks behind the counter will get started on the handmade tortillas.
Boyle Heights resident Graciano Ramirez can vouch for that. The 50-year-old has been coming to La Chispa de Oro for four years and claims the fresh handmade tortillas are like no other.
Although La Chispa de Oro had to make adjustments after the effects of the economic recession, they felt committed to providing their customers with quality service by keeping prices low and setting up tabs for those customers who may not be able to afford meals.
Over the years, Melchor moved up from delivery boy to manager of the restaurant. But his job has extended beyond serving food””He’s helped customers translate their mail, fill out job applications and rebate forms.
“Some of these people talk as if you are part of the family,” said Melchor. A gesture he returns as part of the commitment to his parents’ traditions.