Bye, bye Baha Burgers

The last of the equipment is moved out Thursday.

Gilroyan native Byron Morillo remembers standing on his tiptoes
at Baha Ranch Burgers decades ago, sliding quarters across the
linoleum counter to pay for lunch. Full article
Gilroyan native Byron Morillo remembers standing on his tiptoes at Baha Ranch Burgers decades ago, sliding quarters across the linoleum counter to pay for lunch.

“It feels weird. Very weird,” said the gruff 48-year-old, watching his favorite haunt shutting its doors and turning off the grill for good. “This place has been here forever. It’s good food.”

When a modest group of friends and family gathered on a gray Thursday morning behind the iconic dive dotting the corner of Monterey and Seventh since 1968, Morillo was one of few to witness the brisk dismantling of a city mainstay.

“I feel bad,” said Steve Hernandez, whose mother Doris Ortiz has owned the Baha building for 12 years. “But they’re not paying rent. It’s a sad case. It’s come down to that. That’s the way it is.”

Noticeably frazzled with the situation as she recounted the circumstances over the phone, Ortiz said Baha’s tenants owe her 2.5 years worth of rent – but haven’t paid anything in 18 months. After giving notice to Baha owners Alfonso and Esther Tamayo in July to “pay rent or quit,” an eviction notice was issued to vacate the premises by Aug. 9, Ortiz said.

As the Tamayos were still conducting business Tuesday, Ortiz asked two Sheriff’s deputies to lock up the restaurant Wednesday.

The family now has 15 days to move 43 year’s worth of work out of the building, and into a U-Haul.

“It was a hard thing for me to do,” said Ortiz. “They have made no attempt during this timeframe to settle up.”

Having spent their childhood playing and working in Baha alongside their parents, two of the Tamayo’s five daughters – Joann Tamayo and Marina Tamayo Barrientez – are emotional over the circumstances but do not speak ill of their landlord.

Acknowledging that her family cannot afford to pay rent, the petite Marina says she empathizes with Ortiz’s situation.

“I have sympathy for her,” she said. “It’s not to be blamed on nobody.”

Lingering in the background, Hernandez repeatedly shook his head and said it was a sad situation.

According to Ortiz, dozens of letters were sent to her tenants prior to seeking enforcement from law officials.

Despite the alleged warnings, however, Esther, 78, still describes eviction as “a shock.”

She said she envisioned their bustling burger joint staying in the family. The children would take over, and Baha would go on being Baha, she said.

“It’s been his life,” said Esther, standing on the restaurant’s patio floor blanketed in Astroturf.

She turned and motioned to Alfonso.

“It doesn’t look like it, but my husband is going to take it bad.”

For a man going about the task of packing up “his home,” the stooped 90-year-old is decidedly resolved and pre-occupied.

He shuffled around behind the scenes – pouring coffee, grabbing Styrofoam cups and placing them stack-by-stack into an empty cardboard box.

“I’m not sad,” said Alfonso, whose daughters refer to him as “Papi.”

He leaned against the cash register.

“I’m OK.”

A man of few words – at least on this particular Thursday morning – Alfonso added in broken English, “so many memories. Always memories. A whole lot.”

As business slowed down over the last two years, closing crossed his mind, he said.

“My dad always said this is his home,” said Marina, pausing in the tiny kitchen. It’s stashed with hamburger buns, plus odds-and-ends you’d expect a mom-and-pop greasy spoon to collect over four decades: Magnets, hand-written notes, mugs from home, phone numbers written in Sharpie on the wall, a tub of licorice.

For a venue once declared in a San Jose Mercury News contest as having the best available burger for less than 50 cents, the humble “drive-in” lined with palm trees is a waning chapter in Garlic Capital culinary history.

Articles from the Mercury and Dispatch – now faded and yellow – still hang in the window.

“He’s come on hard times the last few years,” said Tony Gaffney, who owns a video game company called GAFFCO that’s catered to Baha for 20 years.

Emptying quarters from a mechanical apparatus removed from the innards of a video game machine, Gaffney added, “things aren’t good for anybody right now.”

As far as Baha’s profits are concerned, Ortiz disagrees. While she hasn’t seen the restaurant’s books, Ortiz says business has been consistent. It’s a busy location, she said, and the next owner will likely re-open a new restaurant under a different name.

When asked if she was considering retirement, Esther responded, “What for?”

She raised her arms and looked around the cramped but homey kitchen.

“Alfonso’s life and my life have been here.”

Even when she’s not at Baha, Esther can’t escape her public persona. To many, “Mrs. Tamayo” is the eternal filler of sodas; the maternal cashier crouching to take your order through a small, sliding glass window.

“I know these guys from this big,” she said, leveling a flattened palm four feet above the floor.

Now, her longtime regulars are married with children and grandchildren, she said.

Peering out from her post near the ticket taker as Lopez discussed what to do with the deep fryer, Esther speculated myriad patrons will show up and wonder, “what happened?”

For Marina, the nostalgia of Baha transcends employment; currently it’s her only job – but the memories of family gatherings and holidays spent celebrating at work are what stick as she empties drawers filled with receipts and scribbles on Post-It notes.

Yesterday, Marina told her father, “God has blessed us for more than 50 years with this restaurant. This season is over, and the new season will begin somewhere else.”

Their last day of business was Wednesday.

“I said to myself, ‘this is it,’ ” said Esther. ‘We have to go forward.’ “

Leave your comments