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Mexican Restaurant Titans of Indianapolis: Acapulco Joe’s & El Sol de Tala

September 23, 2021

Today, Mexican restaurants are easy to find around the city of Indianapolis. But in the 1960s you would see the emergence of these restaurants and an interest in Latin American cuisine. A 1963 Indianapolis Star article would define a taco as a “Mexican Sandwich.” To clarify, a Mexican sandwich is a torta or lonche. Authentic Mexican food and its ingredients were hard to come by in the 1960s, despite the growing Latino and Hispanic population. In Indianapolis’ downtown eastside barrio there would be the El Nopal Mexican Market at 810 E. North Street, owned by Feliciano and Maria Espinoza, both of Mexican descent. Around this same time in downtown Indianapolis in 1961 Jose Guadalupe Robles Rangel, known as Joe Rangel, would open Joe’s Fine Food at 342 N. Illinois Street. By early accounts, he served standard American diner fare and the “Best Food-Best Coffee On this Corner.”

Indianapolis News, April 9, 1966

His customers would later know him by his nickname, Acapulco Joe. In the summer of 1970, he began to serve Mexican food on Tuesday and Wednesday. Long lines formed outside of his 54-seat dining room on those specific days. While he was known as “Acapulco Joe”, he was born in 1922 and raised almost 400 miles east of Acapulco in the Mexican west-central state of Guanajuato. He was unapologetically outspoken, a bit mysterious, and a tireless worker who had a large following of loyal customers. After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1970, Joe changed the menu and Joe’s Fine Food was renamed Acapulco Joe’s. Every day at noon he cranked up the volume and played a 1940s recording of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” His menu consisted of mostly Tex-Mex style of Mexican food, a style of Mexican food that is mostly consumed in the United States. By the 1980s he was an Indianapolis institution operating a much-loved downtown Indianapolis Mexican restaurant. In 1982 Indianapolis newspapers would regularly report and create a panic around Joe’s possible permanent closure. This was due to the planned demolition of the building his restaurant occupied. American United Life (AUL) company (now, One America) was growing and needed additional parking spaces. While AUL and area building owners offered financial support, Joe regularly and publicly refused.

In a 1982 Indianapolis News article titled, Acapulco Joe: ‘I Don’t Need Help’, he says:

“Nobody helped me swim across the Rio Grande River. Nobody helped me do my time in prison. Nobody helped me set up my restaurant. I don’t need no help. If they want to help, let me stay here…. I’ve got money and I’ll be all right.”

In April of 1983, months after he finally shut the doors at 342 N. Illinois street and retired, he announced that he was reopening, across the street at 365 N. Illinois Street. This would serve as his next and final location. In 1988 at the age of 66, Jose “Joe” Guadalupe Robles Rangel would pass away. The restaurant that was his namesake would continue to operate as Acapulco Joe’s under a series of different owners and closing in 2019.

While Joe was making a name for himself and Mexican cuisine in downtown Indianapolis, another well-known Indianapolis Mexican restaurant was planting its roots. In 1978, Mrs. Maria Taylor would open El Sol de Tala Restaurant and Market at 2444 E. Washington Street. Previously, the Miami Market existed at this location. Miami Market operated for two years as a Latin American specialty grocery store. Proprietors were Puerto Ricans from Miami, Francisco “Frank” and Axia Poventud.

Indianapolis Star, March 26, 1978

After the grand opening of El Sol de Tala, the Indianapolis News food column called “Table Talk” would feature Maria’s restaurant where she stated, “we’re serving Mexican food, the way Mexican people serve it at home,” mentioning she was raised in Brownsville, Texas. Maria’s tenure as owner of El Sol would be short-lived, closing in September of 1979. It would reopen with new owners later that same year. In 1982, Maria would take her Mexican and Tex-Mex culinary expertise to the westside where her dishes were featured on the menu of The Starting Line Restaurant and Lounge at 6331 Crawfordsville Road, adjoined to the Dollar Inn Motel.

Javier Amezcua with a business partner, would revive El Sol de Tala and Market at its original Washington Street location in 1979 and by 1981 he was operating, for a brief time, a second location across from (the now demolished) Market Square Arena in the Arena Hotel at 401 E. Washington Street.

Javier, like El Sol’s original founder Maria, explicitly said that their food was always authentic. Javier, a native of Tala in the state of Jalisco, was often quoted saying he does not serve “phony, Mexican-style dishes” at El Sol. His menu reflected true Mexican food, found in Mexico. El Sol briefly had another location at 86th Street and Ditch Road. He said in a 1999 Indianapolis Star news article that his northside customers, accustomed to Tex-Mex style Mexican food, complained about the menu being inauthentic. Javier stuck to what he knew, further adding “we didn’t have ground beef tacos and chimichangas. You can’t argue with customers. They say the customer’s always right.

El Sol would open another brief, fourth location in 2003 at Union Station, the year after the opening of the Mexican Consulate in 2002. Javier would fall into a disagreement with a recently acquired business partner who was a majority owner in 2014, forcing it to close, losing the name El Sol de Tala. Shortly thereafter, he briefly rebranded and opened Javier’s Hacienda at 2444 E. Washington Street, only to close again in 2015. Javier Amezcua returned to Mexico and opened an El Sol de Tala Resturante Bar in Tala, Jalisco, Mexico. Javier passed away in Mexico in 2020.

While Joe, Maria and Javier were all of Mexican heritage, their different menu offerings reflected the appreciation and love of their culinary culture. Their long-standing success is evident in being loved by the citizens of Indianapolis.

Nicole Martinez-LeGrand is the Multicultural Collections Coordinator in the Library and Archives Division at the Indiana Historical Society. She’s an adrenaline seeker of a unique kind and enjoys the thrill of connecting people to their past. Her primary areas of research are of Indiana’s Asian and Latino, Latinx and Hispanic communities.

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