Since Lake Taco first opened in 2014, they have been known as one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in Hood River. One example is written on a chalk board sign in the restaurant entrance. The sign and the message has followed them from their previous location on the Heights to their new home in downtown. The message reads, “We do not mass produce for speed or compromise our quality for volume.”The family-owned business is a favorite of every visitor who walks through the front door from high school students to former NBA superstars like Scottie Pippen.
Maria Rivas-Ortega and Enrique Ortega started their restaurant after getting pressure from their children Luis, 26; Pablo, 20; and Itcel, 16. “My middle son used to tell me all the time, ‘Mom, you need to make a restaurant’,” said Maria. At first, she was hesitant to open her own, working and seeing other restaurants struggle. As the owner the Gorge Taxi Service, Enrique was working nearly 24-hours a day. Opening their own establishment had always been a dream, but it was just that until one day Maria was driving home and spotted a “For Rent” sign out front of 1213 June St. Maria said she knew the previous owners sold hamburgers, so there would be existing infrastructure to accommodate their dreams of opening their own restaurant. She floated the idea to Enrique, and the discussion was brief. They approached the owner to rent out the building and just like that, Lake Taco opened their doors to the community.
“At first, we opened the restaurant and we wanted to do something completely different from all the Mexican restaurants that were here. And for me, as a Mexican, the Mexican food with which I grew up was fresh food without a lot of fats,” said Maria. “I wanted to preserve traditions, in other words, serve fresher and more authentic food. And some of our clients’ favorite things are the tacos, fish tacos, shrimp tacos, the Garnachas, the Huaraches, the burritos, because we use tortillas without preservatives.”
The family operated the restaurant for almost nine years before they started to outgrow the location. As their kids grew up helping around the place, so did their business. They expanded to include an outdoor seating area, they began catering for parties and but felt they were still being missed by potential customers. Even with bright pink and purple exterior paint, the restaurant was just far enough off the beaten path that visitors would often miss the building completely. Sandwiched between 12th and 13th streets, their previous location was far enough off the roads that made it difficult to see while driving. Then an opportunity arose.
The building at 606 Oak St. in downtown Hood River became available when Evoke Winery opted for a move up the street. The location also housed Brian’s Pourhouse for a decade and again had the necessary equipment to house what they wanted to do. Prior to their move, someone suggested starting a GoFundMe, but Maria said they felt bad asking for money. So she reached out to Gabriel Muro at The Next Door, who directed them to Kickstarter.
“I didn’t know about Kickstart beforehand. Then [Gabriel] said, ‘Look, this is an option where people give to you, but you give something in return.’ And I really liked the idea because I have always believed that if someone gives you something, you give something in return and be grateful,” said Maria.
In conjunction with The Next Door and Kickstarter, they created a support system, where, depending on the amount, donors would receive a token of gratitude from the business. Maria made sure to also thank Becky Brun and Janet Hamada for their help organizing the fundraiser.
Donors could chose from different amounts that would give them gifts, recognition or exclusive access to free meals. Donations ranged from $15, where donors would be given two free meals with a drink, and went up to $2,500 — in exchange for a meal and a drink every week for a year, a sneak peek at special dishes, and their name at the top of the wall of recognition.
The Kickstarter exploded, and Lake Taco met their fundraising goal in one month. More than 400 people donated a total of $48,562 — more than $8,000 more than their original goal. Enrique says with the extra donations he can now open his tortiallia. He will be able to make the same homemade tortillas with a machine, rather doing each one by hand. Enrique was taught by his mother how to make the tortillas.
In January, they finally opened their new location and hosted a Kickstarter party inviting those who donated to attend and show their gratitude.
“I am still very grateful because they made our dream a reality. Because if we had not been able to meet our goal, we would have had to close the old location permanently,” said Maria.
As the family reflects on their past, they are beginning to think bigger. Maria said that when the tortilla machine arrives they have their sights set on expanding their traditions beyond the Columbia River Gorge.
“Once the tortilla machine arrives, we want to make a brand of organic flour tortillas and sell them throughout the Northwest,” said Maria. “And why not, maybe we will try a location in Portland.”
Enrique chimed in and said that won’t be anytime soon, but he is anticipating the tortilla machine arriving this summer.
In the meantime, Lake Taco is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The family also offers catering services for private parties.
Story and photos by Noah Noteboom. Video by Kevin Tokstad
This story was made possible with the assistance of Radio Tierra, Lake Taco and Maria Rivas-Ortega and Enrique Rivas. This story and interview will be read in Spanish. Tune in to 95.1 FM (Hood River), 95.9 FM (Stevenson), 96.7 FM (Carson), 107.1 FM (Parkdale) or 107.7 FM (The Dalles) on Friday, May 26 at 9 a.m. to hear the interview and story live on-air.