Anchorage — Oscar Hernandez knows a thing or two about being down on his luck and starting anew. So when someone fresh from the Anchorage Correctional Complex comes hungry into his trailer restaurant, Oscar's Taco Grande, he's likely to make them a simple burrito free of charge.
"I say, 'Welcome to society,' " laughed Hernandez, who arrived in Anchorage shortly after the 1964 earthquake and slept in an abandoned car until he got his feet on the ground. "You'd be surprised how many people come back to pay for it."
For 34 years, Hernandez has been serving recently released convicts, lawyers, construction workers and truck drivers, among others, from his stand on a pie-shaped piece of land at the corner of Post Road and Third Avenue.
The location makes the restaurant hard to stumble upon, but that doesn't seem to hurt business, thanks to regulars who make it a point to come back -- some since 1979.
"Most of them are still coming here," Hernandez, 74, said. "What I have, I owe it to the customers. Without my customers, I would have been nobody."
Devoted customers have played a large part in Hernandez's success, but undoubtedly his work ethic, charm and ability to bounce back from adversity played equal roles.
"To me, nothing will stop me from doing something," he said. "If I want to do it, I will do it."
A grade-school dropout from a small town near Mexico City, Hernandez had a rocky and winding road to get to Alaska. The details would likely make for a good book.
He ran away from home in his early teens and earned his first money washing cars in the city plaza. He pursued a work visa for a job at a steel factory in Indiana and ended up enlisted in the Army. His time at the factory was marked by strikes and layoffs, strikes and layoffs. After returning to Mexico, he ran a successful business. ("I had money out to here," he gestures. "My pockets were full of money.")
That included raising thousands of chickens for the local rotisserie and eventually having the chickens wiped out in a matter of days by disease. In Arizona, a favorite car was taken away by an envious customs agent. In Alaska, a favorite car was stolen by a drug dealer.
He first thought of coming to Alaska while working in Indiana at the steel factory. He had friends there who would say, "Let's go to Alaska, let's go to Alaska."
"I'd say, 'Yeah, we can drive my car there,' " Oscar recounted. But the friends chickened out.
Years later he went to Monterrey, Calif., to visit family and a cousin said, "Hey I thought you were going to Alaska?" After hearing about a friend in Anchorage, Hernandez decided to take a chance north.
He found work at the Pink Poodle in Spenard as a busboy, the brand new Hotel Captain Cook as a room service waiter and the Westward Building (now the Hilton) as a bartender. Not long after, he added a night janitor job at the Market Basket grocery store across the street from the Pink Poodle.
The oil boom brought years of employment as a cook in camps along the pipeline's route. It was during this stint that he met a man related distantly to a cousin. For that small connection, they called each other "cousin."
The cousin had a wild idea: Open a Mexican food cart in Anchorage. He asked Hernandez for help since he had good credit, but before long the cousin was behind on payments and sold the custom rig behind Hernandez's back.
The shady cousin bought an old People Mover bus to start anew, but Oscar cornered him along Fireweed one day and got him to agree to sell it minus his original investment.
For the first 25 years, the tricked out bus did the job. In 2002, Hernandez moved the current trailer he largely built himself onto the lot.
During a recent weekday lunch rush, Hernandez and his two adult sons handled with ease the steady stream of Carhartt tuxedos and blinding safety neon vests ordering verde gigante burritos and steak tortas. A first-time customer was astonished by how fast his burrito was made, and the customers moved in and out quickly.
While youngest son Adan took the orders, Oscar and oldest son Salomon prepared the tacos, burritos, chile rellenos and the like. Many times, Oscar got a jump on the action by spotting a regular and knowing their order before Adan called it out. That, or he hears it before his sons can react.
"The thing is, I still have pretty good hearing," Oscar said, explaining he had no plans to retire anytime soon.