Bernie Garcia followed the action, so when we walked through the big front doors of Moctezuma's Mexican Restaurant, Tournament of Tacos championship plaque in hand, he wasn't terribly surprised - though he was happy to see us.
"It was great. We had customers asking us all the time if we'd won, or saying they'd voted for us," says Garcia, 27, runs the Moctezuma's at 56th and Tyler and the Gig Harbor location with his sister, Maribel.
But the story of Moctezuma's, and the well-known Mexican restaurant's Tournament of Tacos victory, starts well before Bernie and Maribel took the lead reins.
As many old-school Mexican food enthusiasts in the area already know, Moctezuma's wasn't always the massive monument to rice, beans, tacos, enchiladas and huge Margaritas that it is today. Once upon a time, Moctezuma's was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall enterprise on South Tacoma Way - one of the first of its kind.
Bernie and Maribel's dad, Arturo Garcia, with plenty of help from his wife Magdalena along the way, originally created Moctezuma's in 1978, inspired by the success of a handful of other, authentic Mexican restaurants in the area - and intent on dishing out the tastes he loved. Having recently relocated from Mexico, Arturo secured a small spot on South Tacoma Way - near where the JC Penney once stood - and went to work.
Building a dedicated clientele through that hard work - not to mention a menu that gave people the tastes they craved while avoiding monotony - Arturo and his family, including a young Bernie and Maribel, broke ground and opened the massive Moctezuma's we know today in 1988. Moctezuma's Gig Harbor location followed in '94.
"My dad started this restaurant when he was 24, barely speaking any English. Little by little, it started getting more popular," says Garcia of his father's work, and the area's appetite for Mexican cuisine. "Soon, there were times when there were lines out the door. We just couldn't fit in that little place anymore."
"My sister and I both grew up in the business, from dishwashing, to bussing to serving. I remember running around when we were in the little place," continues Garcia. "We both went to college, and both had our minds made up that we were going to come back and run the business and eventually grow it. The whole goal was to make things way better."
Roughly four years ago, Bernie and Maribel officially took over for their father, though Bernie is quick to note the old man is still routinely involved in the business and pleased with the direction his children have taken things. Included in a number of slight changes and improvements, Bernie and Maribel have aimed to put an emphasis on constantly bettering the menu, and providing authentic tastes you aren't likely to find at other Mexican restaurants of Moctezuma's size.
Moctezuma's may look massive, but at its heart, it's the same, small, family run business started way back when in the tiny hole-in-the-wall on South Tacoma Way.
Bernie and Maribel's emphasis on authenticity may be the main reason Moctezuma's emerged victorious in this year's Tournament of Tacos. More specifically, the restaurant's "Mexico City Tacos" - prepared with some of the freshest corn tortillas, best meat, and delicious seasoning you're likely to find - have long been a customer favorite, and no doubt carried Moctezuma's to the title.
"When we first decided to do these tacos we thought it might not fit us because they're more like taco shop tacos," says Garcia. "But we ended up analyzing it, and saying hey, ‘We're known for our quality and people want to have good authentic food.' The taco is the most authentic dish you can get. The taco is Mexico.
"We're really grateful that people voted for us (in the Tournament of Tacos)," continues Garcia. "It was great to see our customers enthusiastic about it, and just to know people enjoy our food so much is very satisfying."
Congratulations, Moctezuma's Mexican Restaurant - this year's Weekly Volcano Tournament of Tacos champion.
UPDATE: The original version of this story mixed up the names Maribel and Magdalena. Magdalena Garcia is Bernie and Maribel's mother - not the other way around. Matt Driscoll feels like a schmuck for making the mistake. Sorry. We will print a correction in next week's Volcano. The Mexico City Tacos are still delicious.
[Moctezuma's Mexican Restaurant, 4102 S. 56th St., Tacoma, 253.474.5593]
[Moctezuma's Mexican Restaurant, 4803 Point Fosdick Dr. NW, Gig Harbor, 253.851.8464]]