“It’s a beautiful country but I don’t think I’m going to stay here forever,” Tommy Bermejo wrote in a letter from the United States to his wife Elmy in Yucatán, nearly 60 years ago. “Why don’t you come and visit?”
Tommy was working as a field hand in Texas and California through the bracero program, an agreement negotiated between the United States and Mexico in the mid-20th Century. Back in their home near Mérida, Elmy applied for a travel visa and was issued papers to permanently reunite with her husband.
“But why? I thought. I’m only going on vacation,” she said. Eventually she moved here and so did their children. Today, Elmy is the matriarch of the Bermejo family and the Richmond District business the couple founded in 1965: Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, originally known as Tommy’s Barbecue.
“We knew nothing about the neighborhood, except that there had been an Italian restaurant here,” said Elmy whose first business, Elmy’s Coffee Shop, was on McAllister Street.
“We rented a hotel room across the street and I would go to work in my robe and start fixing the coffee and the batter for the pancakes,” said Elmy. “Then after that, I got dressed in my uniform, turned the lights on and the people started coming.” She rang up order after order of “one donut and a coffee, 10 cents and 12 cents: 22 cents,” she said, “And 89 cents for a nice lunch.”
“My parents were hard workers,” said Teresa, the second eldest of five children. She assists her mother about six months of the year, when she’s not at her own home in Mexico. I asked her how the business and its workers are bearing up to the right wing’s latest round of attacks, often directed at indigenous people of The Americas, the very workers who deliver our food supply from the fields to the table.
“It’s getting harder and harder…of course I’m worried,” she said, amazed at her mother’s resilience. “She never gets angry. She prays a lot. She has good relations with everyone.”
Teresa remembers when she and her older sister, also named Elmy, took care of the younger children while their parents worked.
“We studied at St. Monica’s,” said Teresa of the church and school across the street from Tommy’s. Her brother, Julio, is the restaurant’s tequila expert: His knowledge of the agave plant, its fermentation and distilling process, have made Tommy’s a destination for drinkers.
“When we first opened, we had one tequila,” said Elmy, who still works at the counter. “I did the margaritas, I did the waitressing, and took the money.”
The Bermejos eventually opened two more restaurants following the success of Tommy’s (both have since closed), though in the beginning, neither of them knew how to cook. It was a relative who suggested Tommy would do well to switch from field labor to kitchen work, “It’s more consistent, rain or shine,” said Elmy.
Moving quickly from dishwashing to food prep, Tommy honed his English and his cooking skills at a barbecue downtown and at a neighborhood Mexican place. When learning of the available restaurant on Geary Boulevard, he knew it was right. “Tommy’s co-workers all said they had some savings and we made the down payment,” said Elmy, but there were sacrifices.
“We went no place, no movies, no nothing,” said Elmy. They even kept the old restaurant’s Italian, grapevine decor until the loans were paid back and they could remodel in their own style.
“In the window we had rotisserie chickens and people would come for chickens and the children would come here after school for French fries,” explained Elmy. They served prime rib and New York steaks, “but no Mexican food,” until customers demanded it.
“People asked, Where are the enchiladas? Where is the guacamole? Where are the tacos? Tommy says ok, we’ll start doing specials,” said Elmy. Regional specialties came later.
“Julio asked why don’t we have Yucatecan food? We are from Yucatán!,” and so pollo pibil, poc chuc and Yucatecan tamales were added to the menu. Old time San Franciscans typically call the place Tommy’s Enchiladas.
“We had a mural with enchiladas, that’s why I think some people still call it Tommy’s Enchiladas,” said Elmy. Though the mural is gone, there is plenty of artwork on the walls much of it created by local artists (like Calixto Robles, a subject of a previous edition of SF Lives).
Tommy used to prepare a meal for him and Elmy at about three o’clock, as their shifts changed over.
“He always called me, ‘Where are you? Why don’t you come soon? I’m cooking.’ Always something special. When I get here, the food is here, a little wine, after that he goes home and rests and comes back.”
Tommy passed away in 2011 at age 79; Elmy will be 85 this year.
“It’s a lot of years,” she laughed. She’s often asked why she doesn’t retire.
“There’s a lot of friendship here,” she said. “When I get sick and stay home, people start asking and Julio says, ‘You have to get ready to come back. Everyday people are asking about you,’” she said. “A lot of them call me mama or Mrs. B. The people are all very nice,” she said. And when they aren’t?
“Julio tells them, ‘I think you’ve had enough,’ and they go home.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.