5 minute read
History: Memorable Meals
Remembering a Few Favorite Past Restaurants in Visalia
Story & Photos provided by Terry Ommen
Since its beginning, Visalia has had an interesting collection of restaurants serving a wide variety of fare. And the eateries took pride in the food they served. As far back as 1859, for example, the Jenny Lind Restaurant boasted that they served meals “all hours of the day or night” with the best food the “market affords.” When my wife and I moved to Visalia in the fall of 1972, we found a wide variety of eating places to experience. So after a half-century of living here, we occasionally reminisce about restaurants we enjoyed.
Mearle’s College Drive-In (604 S. Mooney Blvd.) stands out as a family favorite. We remember watching the food preparation taking place in the center of the restaurant behind the horseshoe counter. Then there were the delicious hot roast beef sandwiches and hamburgers and a strawberry malt for dessert. And who can forget Mearle Heitzman, the owner in his business attire quietly watching over operations? He seemed to always be there.
Hagopian’s International Delicatessen (409 N. Willis St.) helped give the town a worldly flair. Gerry and Richard Hagopian opened in 1970 featuring Armenian, Greek, and a variety of Middle Eastern foods. For us, it was our first time eating lamb shish kabob, and baklava, a tasty Middle Eastern dessert. Talk about opening up new gastronomic experiences!
Then of course there was Yuet Sue’s Tea House (2332 S. Mooney Blvd). Opened by Yuet Sue and his wife Elsie, they timed their grand opening to coincide with Chinese New Year’s Day, January 28, 1960. The spacious restaurant had Chinese décor and featured delicious Chinese, Mandarin and South Seas food. Their Mandarin Cocktail Lounge offered a wide variety of adult beverages and a piano bar. The restaurant and its big sign out front was a Mooney Blvd. landmark for many years.
And who could forget the Wagon Wheel? Originally it opened in 1955 as Warren’s Wagon Wheel SteakHouse (400 N. Willis St.) by Dolly and Warren Phelps. During the early years, Evelyn Brown was a regular organist there. They served a variety of food in their western themed steakhouse, and were obviously known for their steaks, but their spare ribs were out of this world, too!
And then there was Las Palmas (309 E. Main St.) owned by Alicia and Gilbert Cortes. The eatery actually began in 1943 at 123 N. Garden St. and was owned by a family member. Around 1968, they moved the restaurant to Main Street. For 53 years, the Cortes family served traditional Mexican food which earned them a large and appreciative following, including our family. The couple closed the restaurant in 2018, which deeply disappointed their many customers.
Speaking of delicious Mexican food, here’s one that you may have forgotten: Ofelia’s Drive-In (814 N. Court St.) opened in 1962 in a small building just off the Lincoln Oval. Opening a restaurant was not a difficult decision for Ofelia Mora. It was all part of her family heritage, and she could sure cook! Our daughter, Lyndsay Ommen McCollum, remembers eating the amazing rice and chicken tacos freshly made by Ofelia herself. Customers were amazed at her uncanny way of knowing their names; and when it came time to pay, Ofelia would “arrive” at a cost which was always less than the menu price.
The Visalia Tea Garden (325 E. Main St.) opened for business in about 1922 on E. Center St., but in 1936, the Young family built a new restaurant on E. Main St. complete with a noodle-making space in the basement. Although closed now, the long time family-owned Cantonese and Mandarin landmark was known for chow mein, noodle dishes and egg foo yung. Loyal fans were disappointed when the doors were closed.
And let’s not forget Ford’s Nibble Nook (1336 E. Main St.) It wasn’t the fanciest eatery in town, but it had good food and a loyal group of customers, including my wife. She worked nearby and frequented the Nibble Nook during lunch—her favorite was their tuna sandwich with tomato. Don and Cleona Ford owned it for about 25 years, closing the doors in 1989.
And then, of course, there was the legendary Estrada’s Spanish Kitchen (1545 S. Mooney Blvd.) The Estrada family had been in the restaurant business since about 1914 when Louise, the matriarch of the family, opened a tamale parlor in downtown Visalia. For over 75 years, the family operated restaurants at different locations, moving to the final one on Mooney Blvd. in 1958. It closed in about 1992, leaving their many customers yearning for their enchiladas and steaks.
The list of gone-but-not-forgotten eateries could go on and on including many more like Shagnasty’s Big Play Café, Granny’s Pantry, Sombrero Café, Roma, Finnis, Señor Flintstones, Apple Annie’s and Grubstake. Each had a following and each earned a place in Visalia’s amazing food history.