If you lived in Laguna Beach between the early 1960s and the late ‘80s, chances are good that you patronized La Paz, one of the few restaurants outside of downtown.
Though gone from the scene for more than two decades, nostalgic recollections by loyal La Paz customers are surprisingly easy to find. We turned them up as a result of a recent inquiry from former resident Steve Buchanan, a 1964 Laguna Beach High School graduate. He wanted to track down the restaurant’s famous blue cheese salad dressing.
In its heyday, when La Paz closed for the help’s annual vacation, “you marked off the days on the calendar until they opened again,” said resident Cathy Hallinan, who regularly frequented the landmark Mexican eatery in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. She fondly recalled making daily treks from Oak Street beach up to the restaurant’s popular back door, where surfers and sun worshipers lined up still sandy footed in trunks and swimming suits to get the combo plate of beans, rice and cheese.
The take-out door opened on a narrow corridor between La Paz and the building next door. Patrons awaiting their paper plate passed the time writing their names, drawing hearts, and recording surfing feats on the wall, said Hallinan.
Usually, they’d bring their foil-covered paper plates back to the beach, but sometimes they’d lean against the sun-drenched wall of the tiny deck to finish off their affordable and satisfying meal. Prices ranged from 35 cents to $1.25 between the early ‘60s and late ‘70s.
Buchanan and his friends would walk up from their hangout at Wood’s Cove and eat their combo plates on the walk back.
The back-door Laguna ritual was born of expediency since kids coming from the beach used to track tar all over the floor inside, owner Florence Nichols told the Laguna News-Post in 1988. In an earlier article, reporter Len Hall wrote that the back door window had a particular following in the ‘60s “when it became a haven for long haired, barefooted hippies who weren’t welcome elsewhere.”
The ever-genteel owner-hostess greeted those who ventured inside the tiny establishment for a sit down meal. They dined on dishes devised by her husband with the help of the cook to replicate memorable meals from restaurants such as Mexico City’s Sanborn’s.
Hence, the inspiration behind La Paz’s much-praised Sanborn’s enchilada. “My dad just sort of copied the ingredients,” of dishes he liked, said Holly Pettit, the Nichols’ daughter, who still lives in Laguna.
Her father hired Laguna native Donny Crevier in his first job as a dishwasher. “It was perfect for my lifestyle in those days,” said Crevier, who surfed all day and then showed up at work, where employees could eat before starting their shift. The former owner of Santa Ana’s Crevier BMW recalled fibbing about his age to get hired since he was only 13. What’s more, at $1.25 an hour, he was able to save enough to buy his school clothes for the upcoming year.
Even when his dishwashing days were over, Crevier ate at La Paz until it closed. He’s still hooked on La Paz’s salsa, which he says is the basis of the brand O-Roy-O made by another local resident and sold in Laguna Beach markets.
“Everything was made fresh,” recalled Pettit, who worked mornings in the restaurant’s kitchen during summer vacation and remembers stripping whole cooked chickens to make tacos. Other favorites included, chile rellenos, salsa, and the salad dressing Buchanan inquired about, which had quite a following.
She mixed the blue cheese dressing in six-gallon batches, a recipe difficult to reproduce since it involved bulk ingredients. She started with a large round of Roquefort cut into six pieces, one for each gallon, and added the other ingredients measured in paper condiment cups.
After Buchanan left Laguna to settle in Diamond Bar, he returned to La Paz with his daughters several times each summer until it closed. Instead of frequenting the back door, he sat inside with his family where he developed a craving for the salad dressing.
When the restaurant finally closed, the dressing recipe was posted on the door, according to Buchanan, but he was away on business and missed it.
La Paz sprang from Kenneth Nichols’ desire for a career shift, leaving Houston and his engineering career to open a Mexican restaurant in California. He and his family stopped in Laguna to see friends en route to Palo Alto. They liked Laguna better and returned to initially buy The Flats, a Mexican restaurant where Albertson’s is now located. Within a year, they purchased the property in the 1100 block of S. Coast Highway, a former architect’s office, for $17,500 in 1956. It’s now occupied by Wahoo’s.
La Paz was so successful Nichols opened others in Orange and Fullerton. When he died as a result of a heart attack in 1967, his wife kept only the Laguna location going.
From the very first employee, cook Theresa Frias, the staff became like family. When La Paz closed in 1988, Frias had worked there for its entire 32-year run, head waiter-manager Louis Villalobos was there for 31 years, and cook Augustin Reyes and his wife had put in 17 years.
Dispersal of the “family” due to retirements and relocations led to the restaurant’s closure. Pettit said her mother didn’t want to train a new crew and decided to close up shop. Pettit, who runs a Montessori preschool, wasn’t interested in taking the reins.
“Everyone in this town had withdrawal when they closed,” said Hallinan, who still can summon the memory of leaning on the sun-warmed wall in her bikini and warm corn tortillas wrapped in wax paper and dripping in butter.
Theresa Frias’ salsa, as printed in the Oct. 13, 1988, edition of the Laguna News-Post:
Ingredients: About a pound of little yellow and jalapeno chiles, fresh, with stems removed; two cloves fresh garlic; handful chopped white onions; two large pinches of oregano; number two can of tomatoes, one cup tarragon vinegar; three-four tablespoons of salt.
Put vinegar, garlic, onions, oregano and salt in a blender and run until ground up and mushy. Then fill blender with jalapeno chiles. Blend on and off to chop them up. Run until blended and put in gallon-size jar.
Fill blender with yellow chiles. Add small amount of water and blend. Add to gallon jar.
Fill blender with tomatoes. Blend tomatoes slowly (start and turn off several times). Add tomatoes to jar and stir together.
Hallinan’s blue cheese recipe, as it was given to her:
¾ cup tarragon vinegar
¾ cup salad vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard
1 teaspoon basil
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon salt
¾ pound blue cheese
2 gallons mayo
(Note that Pettit doesn’t recall the dressing having any tarragon vinegar, just regular vinegar, though perhaps the recipe was tweaked after she stopped making it. She said the recipe she knew also included salad oil. Questioned on whether the 2 gallons of mayo is excessive relative to the other ingredients in this recipe, Pettit said it was possible, but she couldn’t say for certain, since this recipe was recorded by someone else, and since her personal experience was making giant batches not suited for home consumption.)
Photos courtesy of Holly Pettit