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Panic set in when I saw the tweet: “Original Taco House restaurants suddenly shutter,” paired with an image of a familiar cursive neon sign. The abrupt closure on New Year’s Eve was part of a serial extinction of Old Portland vestiges: Chinatown’s dim sum dinosaur House of Louie, Greek diner the Overlook, Bavarian wonderland Der Rheinlander. For some reason I’d never imagined the Taco House among them.

The local chain, owned by the Waddle family, graced the city with big plates of Americanized Mexican grub for nearly 60 years: a hokey vision of worldly eating for the Portland masses. And for more than 40 of those years (longer than I’ve been alive), my family were loyal regulars.

My earliest trips to the Original Taco House came before I could walk. I ordered soft-taco burritos for years before graduating to a tostada and, finally, the “Little Hungry,” an enchilada-with-beans-and-rice classic that vanished from the menu several years ago but they’d still make to order. At OTH, you gorged yourself on endless rounds of tortilla chips hot from the fryer, and salsa, and too much soda. Every meal ended with a basket of fried, light-as-air, sugar-dusted “Mexican cookies,” which were both messy and impossible to pass up.

The Original Taco House restaurants were cheerful if dimly lit places, with an aesthetic one local writer once dubbed “a Disneyland version of the Alamo.” A more critical eye might have found it a little tacky. To me, this was holy ground, safe from all criticism. Stepping inside was a time warp: group birthdays, mom-daughter lunches, introducing friends from college, always leaving pleasantly full, if not near comatose. And comforted.   

Our family’s tradition of dinner at the Taco House outlasted almost any other. We didn’t stay in the same house or zip code, but we remained Taco House partisans. As I grew up, even after we discovered other local, far more authentic spots with better burritos or better salsa, we returned to the Taco House. Because it wasn’t about the food. It was about the history—its own, and ours. And often that’s what we craved above all else.

One of my last visits to the Original Taco House—the one on Powell next to the Scottish Country Shop—came in early 2016. Over a table crowded with Fiestaware plates, I told my parents I’d met someone. I couldn’t have known that within a year, I’d move to Montana to be with him. I knew only that I felt strongly enough to tell my parents about him. That moment is now one of my most treasured: My mom, giddy, asking rapid-fire questions (“What is he like?” “What does he do?” “Are you in love?”), interrupting me to share her own stories. My dad, quiet and smiling, chuckling at her excitement as he grabbed more chips.

I imagined I’d take my boyfriend to Taco House eventually, too. I imagined reconnecting with my hometown and the people I love most. I never saw the end coming.

Taco House owner Jeff Waddle, grandson of the original proprietors, closed the dining chain on December 31, slapping a printer-paper announcement on the restaurants’ doors the preceeding day. It was short, thanking loyal customers and staff but noting, “There is simply no Waddle left to greet our customers.” That may be true, but that place will always be family to me.

Emily E. Smith is a former reporter for the Oregonian. She now lives in Montana—and eats enchiladas at Casa Mexico in Kalispell.
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