Time passes under the awning

Acapulco Drive-Inn changes hands slowly from one generation to another

Imagine a place where one can drive one block south of downtown, across Durango Boulevard on a hot afternoon at the end of a hard day's work. Pull into the parking lot, grab a table under the vast metal awning, drop some bills into the jukebox (Tejano, Spanish, and rock). Order a cold 16-ounce Tecate with a slice or two of lime, and a plate of nachos. Kick back, relax, and get ready to have a good time. There's a clock on the wall, but it's inside by the beer box, so you can ignore it. Hanging out at The Acapulco Drive-Inn and Catering is like sitting on your front porch with your best friends, doing nothing but watching the world go by.

Yet, regular patrons of the Acapulco Drive-Inn on South Alamo Street might have noticed that the doors of this Southtown icon have been closed during the weekdays lately. Long-time proprietors Hilaria and Juan Guerra are a little under the weather: Juan is 79 years old and moving more slowly, and Hilaria's back hurts.

They want to keep the popular outdoor bar and restaurant open, but they have to rely on family members, most of whom work full time, to operate the venue on the weekend.

Grandson Johnny Rocha has taken over the routine chores during the afternoon while his grandma prepares gordita masa and chips for nachos.

"There is no secret to making gorditas," Hilaria says as she stands in the hot Acapulco kitchen, mixing masa dough and patting handfuls into a flat round shape and tossing them onto the griddle. "You put it on the stove first, then later fry it, and add chicken, or picadillo, or beans, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and cheese."

The Acapulco Drive-Inn, a staple of Southtown, is passing to a new generation of the Guerra family. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)
"Some people don't like them crispy, pero some people like them crispy."

By 6 p.m., Hilaria is moving slowly, the pain showing on her face. She signals to Johnny that she and Juan are through for the day, and want to go home.

The late shift is led by one of their seven children, Maria Esther Guerra. "We had to cut back the hours, but our intentions are not to close," says Esther, who works full-time as a billing agent for medical insurance. Her son Paul, also in the insurance business, arrives at 6 p.m. to tend bar and keep the patrons happy with orders of gorditas, nachos, hamburgers, and more.

Acapulco's owners share a long history: Hilaria was working at a restaurant named Coney Island when she met Juan, who left his hometown of San Luis Potosí in the '40s. He became a regular customer, and they married in 1947. She was born in Flint, Michigan, but grew up in Laredo.

They tried migrant farmwork for a while before they settled in San Antonio in 1949, where they raised their seven children. "We wanted to live in a new town and earn more money," says Hilaria. Juan got a job at a neon sign company, and counts the Esquire Tavern sign among his accomplishments. Hilaria worked at a now-defunct garment factory near downtown.

Acapulco Drive-Inn & Catering
609 S. Alamo
2pm-midnight Thu-Sat
Price range: $5-10
Cash only
Handicapped accessible
In the 1960s, they opened a restaurant in the Robert E. Lee Hotel and worked from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. cooking food and serving customers. They found the Acapulco property at 609 S. Alamo and leased it in May 1976 after the hotel closed. Hilaria says she named it "Acapulco" because she likes the town, famous for its high-dive cliffs and seaside restaurant where Elvis once made a movie.

Nearly 30 years after its opening, the Acapulco is changing hands. "The business is in transition," says Johnny, taking a break from setting out chairs, washing off the tile floor, stocking the beer box, and laying salt and pepper onto a couple of briskets he will later load into a barrel-shaped barbecue pit in the drive-in parking lot. "I will end up taking over, and she (grandma) will still be here. My grandparents raised me, and I will take care of them for the rest of their lives."

The passing of time makes its mark on generations of families. Hilaria and Juan are at retirement age, and the Acapulco Drive-Inn's future is in the hands of the second and third generation. •

By Michael Cary


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