The tamale is passed
|Liz Valenzuela prepares tamales for the restaurant last week in this small factory on Wright Road.|
Fourth generation takes over renowned tamale factory and restaurant
By Bob Valenzuela
Photography by Aeon Hopi Schmoock
The former owners of Progresso Restaurant and Tamale Factory, Patsy and Aurelio Zuñiga, flank the celebrated restaurant’s new owner’s: their nephew and niece Gil Zuñiga and Margaret Zuñiga-Healy, the fourth generation of Zuñigas to operate the restaurant.
Now a fourth generation takes over, as my high school friend, Aurelio Zuñiga, retires, leaving San Benito County’s most popular restaurant in the good care of his niece, Margaret, and nephew, Gilbert. Aurelio’s grandfather, whose name was also Aurelio, came from the Chihuahua state of Mexico. Aye chee waa waa. Pancho Villa was from that region. The Zuñiga’s later moved to an area near the border town of Durango. The Zuñiga men like to remind me the name of the area was "El Arroyo De Los Machos," as they puff up their chests. The Zuñiga women roll their eyes and laugh. Aye chee waa waa, no respect.
Unfortunately for the elder Zuñiga, Pancho Villa and his soldiers also moved in and out of that area. That�s the main reason the Zuñigas ended up in Hollister operating a tamale parlor: It was because Pancho Villa and his soldiers kept stealing the Zuñiga cattle for their war effort. Zuñiga worried that his beautiful daughters were reaching womanhood, and he theorized, first cows, then my daughters.
The Zuñiga family took up quarters in back of the small restaurant. The storeroom full of beer, soda pop and cornhusks faced the alley, which nowadays would be easy prey for every punk in town. In 1939 Hollister and for 15 more years until the familys move to their present location a tamales throw away on Third Street they never had a lock on the storeroom. Hell, they didnt even have a door.
The name Progresso brings about a quizzical look from most
Mexicans, as it is spelled with one too many Ss. I suspect that
since there were many Italian sign painters in the area, that one bartering
for meals decided to correct Zuñigas obvious mistake
in spelling. Progresso in Italian is spelled with two ss. What could
be the harm?
Well when Aurelio the Youngers father, Vicente, took over the business from Aurelio the elder, they branched out. They had to build a tamale factory as the popularity of their product grew. They were supplying the Nob Hill Grocery chain, as well as some small stores and restaurants as far away as that beautiful city 93 miles to the north. San Francisco restaurants were using them as their own and the once famous Tia Maria Chain served nothing but Progressos tamales.
After several earthquakes, most of the old wooden buildings in the block of San Benito Street where their original restaurant stood had to be town down. In 1955 Aurelio the Youngers dad and Uncle Alfonso had only to look across the street, as the Goodfellows Hotel was up for sale. The small stucco hotel looked like a charming little adobe home and was the perfect setting for and still is this family-operated restaurant. When you walk into Progressos, for me it is like entering my favorite tias front room. The open kitchen allows the aroma to fill the dinning area, as the staff, mostly relatives greet you like family.
The only relative not working the restaurant was Aurelios wife Patsy. When Aurelio left a great paying job in San Jose to take over his fathers business, they knew their priority was their daughters education. Patsy stayed home and took good care of their daughters. And while she did not have a Pancho Villa or his soldiers to worry about, she understood the spell that Hollister High Haybalers have on the womanfolk. She married one. Patsy also did the worst part of any business: The bookwork. She is also local artist of note: Many of her paintings having graced many of our civic buildings. Patsy also worked hard for others, especially in the area of scholarships for local students with her work for LULAC. She once was LULACs Woman of the Year and National Woman of the year.
Progressos no longer makes its famous tamales for chain stores or restaurants in that big city 93 miles to the North. The Zuñigas insist on making them as they always have by hand. Stores and other restaurants can make a better profit by buying machine-made tamales. Which also taste like machine.
Liz Valenzuela, a cousin of the Zuñigas, learned from her mother
Amparo the art and secret to the Progressos tamale. While other
restaurants may buy the pre-made masa, Progressos still buys corn
in 50-pound sacks. Liz then goes through a multi-step process of cleaning
the corn, soaking the corn and cooking the corn, letting the corn cool
overnight and then the next day grinding the corn. A lot of work, but
for the Zuñiga customers its worth it. Same for their chile
sauce. No canned stuff here. The Zuñigas buy chile pods by the ton,
and again Liz goes through a process of soaking and cleaning them. She
then grinds the pods into their unique and savory sauce.
Only the finest beef for their tamale needs is used. Lean, but with flavor-packed
marbling cut into bite-sized pieces and cooked to its most tender stage
and then gently placed on the masa and wrapped in corn husks.
I have been eating at Progressos for more than 50 years, and while I love their tamales, there is so much more to order. How can you not love Aurelios chimichangas? Some of their combination plates are works of culinary art. Great good, friendly staff and wine margaritas. What could be better? Not being a religious man, you still might see me giving a little prayer after a Progressos dinner.
God bless you Mr. Zuñiga the elder and thank you Pancho Villa for stealing his cattle. Viva Villa! Aye chee waa waa.
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