Hungry faces come in numbers as students clasp their change, falling under the spell of homemade salsa and spicy chicken tacos. The line can stretch through the entirety of the walkway from the Viking Union to the bookstore; the aroma of mexican cuisine chasing it from end to end.
Curing that craving for homemade tamales and melty cheese quesadillas is Ruben De La Garza, owner of Burrito King and member of the Western community long before his food filled the air of north campus.
Almost 15 years ago, De La Garza, now 52, became part of the Western community when he started working for Dawson Construction, Inc. With nails and hammers to the Wade King Recreation Center, the Academic Instructional Center and Miller Hall, De La Garza and the rest of the construction team spent almost every day working on Western’s campus.
Come lunch time, De La Garza would put down the tools and head to Vendors Row with the team, he said.
“When we were remodeling Miller Hall, we used to come [to Vendors Row] and eat QQ Li’s,” De La Garza said. “But there was no Mexican food.”
That’s when a light bulb came on, De La Garza said.
Knowing that authentic mexican cuisine could make a good addition to the then existing vendors, QQLi’s Chinese food and El Capitan’s hot dogs, De La Garza began to plan his business.
The food reminds Freshman Israel Valladares of home. The food is authentic mexican food and he enjoys speaking Spanish with the staff, Valladares said.
De La Garza’s food followed him from his roots in Camargo in Tamaulipas, Mexico. His family of six lived on the same block as most of his relatives, he said.
But at the end of fourth grade, De La Garza’s family packed their bags, moving to Corpus Christi, Texas. It wasn’t long before he and his family found themselves in Washington to begin jobs in migrant work, he said.
“We started in Eastern Washington with crops,” De La Garza saiwd. “Then we came up [to Bellingham] to pick strawberries and raspberries.”
Quickly after De La Garza thought of the idea to join the restaurant business, he contacted the Viking Union to begin the application process to get his own stand in Vendors Row. In order to have a stand, he needed to have a commissary kitchen, which is a place to store and cook food or his own restaurant in order to start.
De La Garza then purchased his first restaurant Burrito King in Ferndale, and although he was excited to take on a new adventure, he continued to work part time for Dawson Construction, Inc. He didn’t want to lose out on the pay of construction and being a part of a union, De La Garza said.
“In restaurant work, you need to be there 24/7,” De La Garza said. “Or else it’s not going to work.”
Putting too much of his focus and time on his job in construction, De La Garza’s new restaurant was lacking the attention it needed, he said.
Eventually he had to close the doors.
He found himself in a dilemma: he wanted to continue his job on Vendors Row, but no longer felt he had the energy to operate his own restaurant, De La Garza said.
“I told myself that I would never, ever again buy another restaurant,” he said.
No longer running the Burrito King in Ferndale, De La Garza ran into a problem; he was no longer able to meet the requirements set by the VU to sell food on Vendors Row. Not satisfied with leaving the Western community, De La Garza found a recently closed restaurant in Everson and rented out the space to use as a commissary kitchen, he said.
He cooked out of the commissary kitchen, traveling back and forth from Everson to Western multiple times a day. After a year, the back-and-forth became too much of a hassle.
De La Garza decided to give the restaurant business one last shot.
“The students are what made us start over again,” De La Garza said. “We were getting so much support.”
De La Garza said the students kept asking him where his restaurant was, and kept telling him they wanted to eat his food after school and on the weekend.
Senior Conor O’Keefe eats at Vendors Row three to four times a week, he said.
“I like that they are quick even though they are in high demand,” he said. “I am definitely a big fan.”
Starting to search around, De La Garza said he was very fortunate to locate a spot on 32nd street, the spot the Burrito King still holds today.
De La Garza then met his fiancee, Maria Carmen Govea, whom he credits with helping him run a successful business.
Govea already knew the basics of working in a restaurant, De La Garza said. Between the two of them, sales started increasing and the food started getting better, he said.
“We started messing around with adding a little more of this or that and we made our own recipes,” De La Garza said. “And between her and I, I think we’ve got something.”
De La Garza credits the students and staff of Western for his success.
“Students, staff and maintenance support us,” De La Garza said. “We’ll be here as long as they want us.”