Adios, Taco Lobo - Salish Current
July 8, 2024
Adios, Taco Lobo
Matt Benoit

Taco Lobo owner Luis Fernando Santos owned and operated his Mexican eatery inside the 1912-built Luther Building from April 1999 until closing late last month. Santos said he will miss talking to customers. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2024)

July 8, 2024
Adios, Taco Lobo
Matt Benoit

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Downtown Mexican restaurant is latest of longtime Bellingham eateries to say goodbye

For the last quarter of a century, 117 West Magnolia Street was among Bellingham residents’ favorite destinations for Mexican cuisine. 

It’s there, at a place called Taco Lobo, where countless fresh tortillas had been made and consumed since the restaurant opened its doors in 1999. 

But on June 29, Taco Lobo officially held its swan song, closing forever as part of owner Luis Fernando Santos’ retirement. It marks the latest loss in a series of downtown departures for longtime eateries, following Casa Que Pasa’s closure in August 2021 and Rudy’s Pizzeria in 2019. 

Santos, 67, said his decision to close Taco Lobo was due to several factors. The pandemic years, along with related increases in remote work, brought about a decrease in overall sales that never rebounded to their pre-pandemic levels, he said. 

Safety concerns over unhoused persons and public drug use also did not help business in recent years, he added. Besides shuttering his restaurant, Santos said he will likely sell the entire Luther Building, a historic 1912 structure, as part of his retirement plan. 

A path to tortillas

Santos grew up in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and enjoyed his mother’s cooking as a child. 

In 1965 his family moved to the United States, settling in California. Santos began coming to Bellingham in 1990 for work in the seafood processing industry, splitting time between here and Alaska. While working as a processor for Icicle Seafoods in 1994, he lost his left hand in a workplace accident and now wears a prosthetic. 

After the accident, Santos remained in Bellingham, eventually leaving the seafood industry with an injury settlement to consider his next career. Opting out of a potential path as a cab driver, Santos went into the restaurant business and opened Taco Lobo — Spanish translation “Taco Wolf” — in April 1999. 

Chile rellenos and quesadillas were just $1.75, according to a May 1999 Bellingham Herald article. Reviews of the restaurant were highly positive, noting the house-made tortillas and brightly-tiled interior. 

In March 2001, disaster struck: an early-morning electrical fire gutted the restaurant’s kitchen, damaged the rest of the restaurant and caused a total estimated $300,000 in damage to the Luther Building. But that October, the restaurant re-opened to a long line of customers.

A wolf howls for tacos in the iconic signage of Taco Lobo, the longtime downtown Bellingham eatery which closed its doors on June 29. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2024)

By February 2004, Santos had so much business that those long lines kept forming. He announced plans to double the size of Taco Lobo, occupying a space next door that had previously been a tanning salon. The expansion netted the eatery another 45 or so seats, and included a wall comprised of multiple arched openings for visibility. Images of Pedro Infante — a famous Mexican singer and actor who died in a 1957 plane crash — also decorated the new walls. 

Over the years, the restaurant was widely considered among the best Mexican restaurants in Bellingham, cited in “best of” competitions in various publications. In a March 2023 Bellingham Herald poll of the best Mexican cuisine in Whatcom County, Taco Lobo took home fourth place honors out of 17 restaurants. 

Last lunches

In the days prior to the restaurant’s closing, many local residents stopped by one last time for their favorite bites. 

That included 78-year-old Jane Relin, who said she’ll miss Taco Lobo’s employees, the delicious fish tacos, and the always-alluring chile rellenos. 

“I think they have the best chile relleno in town, without a doubt,” she said, adding that Taco Lobo’s salsa bar —with as much pico de gallo as a person could desire — was also a highlight of dining there. 

Not far away from Relin’s table, 42-year-old Blake Trafton sat with his mother, Beth, and 10-year-old son, Rhys, enjoying their last lunch at Taco Lobo.

“Once we heard the news, we had to make the pilgrimage,” said Blake. “I’ve been eating pollo asado here for 20-plus years.”

As a former Western student, Blake said his decision to frequent Taco Lobo during his college days was always good economics, as portion sizes ensured he’d get two meals from an entrée. In addition to many Saturday meals at Taco Lobo with his parents, Blake said he’d also had birthday parties there 

His son Rhys is also a longtime fan, eating rice and beans there for years. 

“When I was little, I didn’t eat much,” Rhys said. “But when I came to Taco Lobo, I ate everything that was put in front of me.”

Santos himself has always had a series of favorite dishes, including pollo asado, chicken with verde sauce, carnitas and carne en chile — a particularly spicy dish that brought some customers all the way from Seattle, he said. 

In addition to long-term employees including Bill Campbell, Santos’ family has also helped him run things over the years. While he and his wife have no children, several of his nephews have worked there, he said. 

In retirement, Santos said he plans to remain in Whatcom County, taking more frequent trips to Mexico and spending time with his wife and their pug, Coco. 

Asked what he’d miss most about Taco Lobo, Santos said it will undoubtedly be the people, many of whom were frequent visitors and friends. 

“I’m gonna miss ’em,” he said. “I want to thank them for being loyal customers.”

By Matt Benoit

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