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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

Papa Joe's Place

Ahhh, good old’ Tulare. I was born there, and all my family was born and raised there. Papa Joe’s is a part of all Tularean’s history. Back in the day, this place was smaller than what it is now. And every time someone came into the restaurant, the waiter would give them a black marker and pick a spot to write their name. Make your mark and be a part of history. When it was my time to write my name on the wall, it was already 1988. I found where my grandma had signed her name, and I squeezed in next to hers. The place and the food are excellent, YUUMM!! A waitress always welcomed you with a smile. She is probably the granddaughter of my mom's old schoolmate. So everyone knows everyone. Oh, that’s your grandpa? What’s his last name? YEAH, I know him…we went to school together. It’s an excellent place for families to get together and have some good Mexican cooking. I love this place. You have to eat here, AUTHENTIC Mexican cuisine, just like grandma’s kitchen. That’s how ALL the conversations start at Papa Joe’s Place. (A Papa Joe’s restaurant review, from the internet).

Papa Joe’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, aka Joe’s Place and Papa Joe’s, has been a fixture in Tulare for 75 years. Joe L.Vargas, born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico in 1919, was brought to California by his parents in 1920. In 1934, at the corner of Alpine Avenue and P Street, the parents opened a cantina, featuring beer, a pool table, and singing accompanied by Joe’s guitar. Joe graduated from Tulare High School in 1937, and soon after his marriage to Nina Cortez, he took over management of the establishment. Nina gradually added more and more food items to the menu. For nearly 50 years, the old adobe building was one of Tulare’s favorite spots for authentic Mexican food.

In 1983, the city razed the restaurant when they marked the area surrounding for redevelopment. Joe and Nina moved their restaurant into the former Murphree’s Paint Store building at 424 North N Street and continued the fine food tradition. At the old restaurant, patrons had signed their names on every square inch of walls and ceiling. The custom continued at the new site until the practice was discouraged in 1993.

In 1991, son Henry and his wife Mary purchased the business from the family. Henry is the third generation of Vargases to own the restaurant. His dad, Joe, died in 1996, and mom, Nina, in 1999. Mary held a Licensed Day-Care Center until that time. She then closed it to work in the restaurant full-time. Henry worked at Dairyman’s until 2000. Henry gives Mary a lot of the credit for the hard work she has put in to make the business a great success since their takeover. Today, a young girl that Mary watched as a baby in her daycare center works at the restaurant.

In 2006, the restaurant was moved to 1776 E. Tulare Ave., when the city purchased the building on North N Street. There are no black markers and no writings on the walls here. Some paintings were given as gifts to Joe and Nina back in the day. The paintings hang proudly inside the building, along with an old sign that reads, “Weddings Performed by bartender not exactly legal in all states,” signed by Joe L. Vargas.

According to Henry Vargas, his mom never measured anything. Every recipe was a pinch of this or a palm-full of that. The recipes were in Nina’s head. Henry said they caught the ingredients out of his mom’s hand and measured everything 3 – 4 times so that they could get the exact ingredients down on paper.

Henry also told me that from the very beginning, Joe gave lollipops to the children, and it is a practice they still do today. Henry describes a time, while he was out shopping, a child grabbed his leg and started yelling, “Papa Joe, Papa Joe.” The parents had to come and remove the child off of Henry’s leg. Those little ones remember the special extras.

They gave several menu items non-traditional names – the Swoffalada, the Swoffalittle, Swofford Burrito, the Leoni Burrito, and the Don Burrito – honoring three loyal and enthusiastic patrons; Bob Swofford, Mike Leoni, and Don LeBaron. In the mid-’70s, an Advance Register employee, Jim Guy, began frequenting Papa Joe’s Place. He got his buddies to go there. Soon after, one of the reporters did a fascinating article in The Tulare Advance-Register regarding how much they enjoyed the food and atmosphere of the Vargas Family at Papa Joe’s Place. The news article was very positive and had a significant impact on the business.

There is a tostada named “Nina’s Love Boat.” Nina chose the name because of the show, “The Love Boat,” back in the ’80s. There’s also a great dish called “The Mess,” named after Henry’s brother, Pete. Nina always said about Pete’s food, “That’s a mess, and you won’t like it.” Nina made “The Mess,” and it was a big hit at a customer's request. There is also the “Cheesalada” made with enchilada sauce and melted cheese. Eventually, the Vargases hoped to add Mary’s menu, introducing some of her recipes to the mix.

Henry and Mary say the most rewarding of all memories are the people and the great relationships over the years. They remember in the early years serving young people who today are bringing in their children and grandchildren. Keeping a business like this alive is a lot of hard work, but the rewards are endless. No one can replace that Mom-and-Pop tradition and the beautiful relationships that never die.

On May 29th, 2009, Tulare Advance Register, Food Review Section, Papa Joe’s Place, received an excellent review. No violations100%!!!

Papa Joe’s Place closed about 2010. The reason they gave for closing was the low economy.

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