El Progresso thriving over three generations
Hollister Free Lance News - After going to work in the electronics industry in the San Jose area, Aurelio Zuñiga thought that his father, Vicente, would be the last member of the family to run the El Progresso Tamale Parlor on Third Street.
I was an engineer at Kaiser in 1976 and had a good job working on the instrumentation panels for the F-14 fighters, Zuñiga recalled. One day, my dad called and said he was thinking about retiring and wanted to know if I was interested in taking over the business. Believe me, it was a tough decision to make. I remember how hard and long my folks worked in the restaurant but coming back to Hollister has been the best thing I ever did. I know that because my daughters keep telling me so.
Zuñiga’s grandfather, also named Aurelio, came to California with his wife and eight children (including an 11-year old Vicente) after the infamous bandit Pancho Villa stole the family’s herd of cows in Chihuahua, Mexico. The cattle business’ loss was to be a blessing for Mexican food lovers.
After three years in Fresno and Madera as migrant farm workers, the Zuñigas settled in Hollister and saved enough money to open a small restaurant on San Benito Street in 1939 - at the current location of the Bank of America - and named it El Progresso. The Zuñigas, with all eight children helping in the restaurant, served a variety of delicious food but specialized in tamales, using a recipe they brought with them from Mexico.
In 1947, the public demand for the tamales outgrew the restaurant’s space and the factory was moved to the family farm on Wright Road where it is still operated by a cousin, Liz Valenzuela.
We have always made them the old-fashioned way. Vicente said. We shell the corn, cook it in a lime mixture to remove the skin from the kernels and grind the corn ourselves. We use a special blend of mild and hot chiles for the sauce. Most places use a commercial corn meal and it just doesn’t have the same flavor.
The tamale factory has became very popular with tourist groups often stopping by to tour the operation.
In 1955, Vicente and his brother, Alfonso, purchased the old Goodfellows Hotel on Third Street, and converted it into a restaurant.
Today, the tamales, although available in quantity by ordering ahead, are made almost exclusively for the restaurant but were once sold throughout Central California.
I remember delivering tamales to San Francisco and all over the place, Zuñiga recalled. We had one customer in Fresno who would buy 100 dozen at a time and we used to ship them out of Hollister on the Greyhound they were so popular. We also used to supply the Tia Maria restaurant chain.
The elder Zuñiga said he often thought about expanding the business. We probably could have sold them all over the United States but that would have meant using preservatives, and I wasn’t about to do that.
Today, Zuñiga and his wife, Patsy, adhere to the strict standards that have pleased diners for 52 years.
The El Progresso menu features all the Mexican favorites and entrees such as a seafood specialty with shrimp stuffed with Monterey jack cheese and crab, served with a cheese enchilada and Spanish rice. Another favorite is La Malaguena plate, featuring a chile relleno, with a mild chile stuffed with cheddar cheese and dipped in egg batter. It also comes with a cheese enchilada, beef taco and rice. Specialties such as huevos rancheros and Mexican omelettes are also available along with a selection of imported beers and wine margaritas.
Even the employees are part of the family. Some of my workers have been here as long as I have, Zuñiga said.
Mary Reyna has worked in the kitchen for 15 years and her son, Al, who is the assistant cook and daughter, Susan, have been at El Progresso for nine and four years, respectively. We love it here, Mrs. Reyna said. We couldn’t ask for a better boss and the customers are fantastic. We have our regulars and, as Hollister grows, new people keep finding us all the time.
The restaurant’s decor gives diners the flavor of old Mexico and features the artwork of Mrs. Zuñiga, specializing in scenes of San Benito County. Her work, in oil water colors and pastels, has been displayed at the county library, Gavilan College, Hollister City Hall and other locations.
Both she and her husband have been active in the community since their return to Hollister 16 years ago. Mrs. Zuñiga has been active in numerous artist groups, including the San Benito Artists Club and Arts in the Parks and her husband has been a San Benito High School trustee for eight years and serves on the city’s General Plan Advisory Committee.
Hollister has been good to us and a great place to raise our girls, Zuñiga said, so we try to give something back to the community.
After 52 years and three generations, he doesn’t see any of his daughters continuing in the restaurant business.
Oldest daughter Teresa is an electrical engineer in Belmont, Rachel will graduate this month from San Jose State with a degree in business and Elaine will graduate from San Benito High in June.
They have all worked here at one time or another but have their own plans for the future, Zuñiga said with a smile. But you never know about where you’ll end up. I’m a good example of that.
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