Adios, Los Monitos

The long-lived Los Monitos chain seems to be defunct, with all locations closed except the one in Upland, which has changed its name to Chuck’s Tacos. The one at 752 E. Holt Blvd. in Ontario, seen above, reportedly dates to circa 1947. The chain gives its founding as 1936 due to its pre-restaurant incarnation as a tortilla factory. At right is the owner’s message in the window. A Bulletin colleague hopes to write a story on the situation. Keep reading for my April 30, 2006 column on Los Monitos’ 70th anniversary. The beginning and end are somewhat ironic now, but they were true at the time.

Los Monitos notches 70 years of … Mmmm … tacos!

I know, anyone who reads this column regularly must wonder if every business landmark in the valley is closing — but it ain’t true.Sure, we’ve lost some mainstays, and the changes to the valley’s character can be dispiriting as homegrown stores and restaurants are replaced by bland chains you can find anywhere.But plenty of icons are still hanging in there: Ramon’s Cactus Patch, the Magic Lamp Inn, Vince’s Spaghetti, Bumstead Bicycles and Shelton’s Poultry, to name a few, all in business for a half-century or more.

Let us now praise another.

Los Monitos Tacos opened in Ontario in 1936, making this its 70th year. As far as I can tell, it’s the valley’s oldest Mexican restaurant. And it’s not going anywhere.

“People come from all over to eat here,” owner Bernie Diaz told me. “There are generations of customers.”

We were sitting in the 752 E. Holt Blvd. restaurant. It’s a humble place. Actually, the interior looks like the “before” picture of a remodel that never happened.

There’s an open kitchen, but not in a trendy way. It’s just exposed. Walls are bare and white. Chairs don’t match. Our tabletop wobbled.

I told Diaz I like what he’s done with the place. A big man, he roared with laughter.

“You should have seen it before,” he added.

In this, er, minimalist environment, a black-and-white hanging portrait of an older, white-aproned man stands out. That’s Chuck Alonso, who ran Los Monitos for more than 40 years.

Los Monitos — no one’s sure where the name, which means “little clowns” or “little puppets,” came from — was opened by Chuck’s father, Max.

Originally it was a family-run tortilla factory at Park and Sultana, across from Jalisco Market. The Alonsos supplied local markets and sold food, too.

The restaurant side became bigger when the Alonsos built the Holt restaurant circa 1947 in a modest art deco style.

Chuck, who was back from World War II by that point, took over in the 1950s when Max died.

Chuck and his wife, Norma, ran Los Monitos six days a week, routinely working from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Their son, Mike, now an Upland High baseball coach, remembers just one family vacation during his childhood, a trip up the coast. After three days, his father went home.

“He was old school. If he wasn’t there (at Los Monitos ), it wouldn’t be run right,” Mike said.

Generations of Latino teenagers had their first job at Los Monitos . The Alonsos were “the only ones who used to hire the kids from the barrio, the chelitos,” said Diaz, who worked there from 1976 to 1978 as an Ontario High student.

It was first come, first hired. “They didn’t interview you or nothing,” Diaz recalled with a laugh. “They just put you to work.”

Chuck was a penny-pincher prone to challenging customers who asked for extra cheese by demanding, “What do you want extra cheese for?” Diaz found him fascinating — he knew everyone who walked in the door — and intimidating.

“He taught me to think for myself,” Diaz said. “I didn’t want to get yelled at. So I tried to think ahead of him.”After high school, Diaz became a regional manager for McDonald’s, overseeing 23 restaurants and driving a company car. But he thought Los Monitos had potential.He convinced the Alonsos to sell him the place in 1994 and quit McDonald’s. “It was a gamble that paid off,” Diaz said. (Chuck died in 1999 and Norma in 2001.)

Outlets have come and gone. Currently there are two besides the Ontario location: at Foothill and Campus in Upland and at 19th and Carnelian in Alta Loma.

All the prep work is done in Ontario to keep the food consistent, a carryover from Diaz’ McDonald’s days.

Speaking of consistency, the food is “pretty darn close” to the original recipes, Mike Alonso said.

Shredded beef tacos, the signature item, come in extra-thick hard shells. The tortillas are still made from scratch.

Diaz even reverently places a pickle on the enchiladas as garnish, a practice that dates to Max Alonso’s days.

See? The valley is crashing down all around us, but as long as they put a pickle on the enchiladas at Los Monitos , all is right with the world.

David Allen, the pickle on Page 3’s enchilada, writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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