Camerino Gonzalez Valle, who founded Chicago’s popular Taqueria Los Comales Mexican Restaurants nearly half a century ago, died of cancer Wednesday at his Orland Park home at 81, according to his son Lawrence.
In 1973, Mr. Gonzalez started his business in Little Village, taking over a 26th Street restaurant named Los Comales. He refashioned it to focus on the tasty, affordable food that his father Guadalupe served as a street vendor in Mexico City: small tacos that make it easy to eat while walking, plus rice and beans.
At one point, the chain had grown to number 25 Los Comales restaurants as far as Houston and Wisconsin that were run by relatives and business associates. Today, there are 16 in the city and suburbs as well as in Milwaukee and San Antonio, Texas, according to his son.
Mr. Gonzalez was born in San Jóse de Gracia in the Mexican state of Jalisco. In addition to being a street vendor, his father — and later Mr. Gonzalez — participated in the government bracero program, which permitted Mexican workers to do manual and agricultural labor in the United States.
“Dad picked citrus, he worked at some meatpacking plants in Chicago — that’s where he learned a lot of different cuts and different types of meats,” his son said. “He was a bartender, a taxi driver. He accepted every challenge.”
In the early 1970s, Mr. Gonzalez recognized that Little Village, once heavily Bohemian, was becoming a point of entry for Mexican immigrants.
“Like any smart businessman, he saw a need and fulfilled that need,” his son said. “He would always be open for Christmas, always be open for Thanksgiving. He knew his [immigrant] customers would be without family that day.”
Mr. Gonzalez expanded the original Little Village restaurant to a 256-seat spot at 3141 W. 26th St. with one of the city’s first taco drive-thrus. His restaurants became known for their al pastor tacos, made with marinaded, thinly sliced pork shoulder dressed with pineapple, onion and cilantro.
Offering condolences to his family, Chicago’s Mexican consulate praised Mr. Gonzales for “sharing Mexican gastronomy through his chain of taquerias.”
The Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce called his restaurants “an emblem of the entrepreneurship spirit of our Hispanic community in Illinois.”
His restaurants provided many Mexican immigrants with their first jobs in Chicago.
“There’s so many businesses that spawned from Los Comales,” his son said. “Taqueria chains in Houston, California, New Jersey and New York, grocery stores.”
Mr. Gonzalez’ nephew Pepe Barajas, the chef owner and operator of La Josie, 740 W. Randolph St., which received a Michelin Bib Gourmand rating this year, said his uncle taught him how to prepare and serve each meal fresh.
“All I ever wanted to do,” Barajas said, “is be like him.”
Mr. Gonzalez had a home on a 20-acre ranch near Guadalajara, Mexico, where he was able to host and participate in the Mexican-style rodeo and test of equestrian skills known as the charreada.
According to his son, “One of my dad’s dreams was to meet Vicente Fernández,” the Mexican singing superstar known as El Rey. The dream came true when Mr. Gonzalez visited him at Los Tres Potrillos, “The Three Colts,” Fernández’ ranch in Mexico. The same tailor made them ornate charro outfits, according to his son.
Even after breaking his leg while riding, Mr. Gonzalez continued to teach and practice his rodeo skills at his brother Miguel’s ranch in Will County, his son said.
In the 1980s Mr. Gonzalez also started a fruit export business in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.
In addition to his son Lawrence and brother Miguel, Mr. Gonzalez’s survivors include his wife Patricia, sister Martha, daughter Christina, stepsons Nicholas Acevedo, Richard Acevedo, Fernando Franco, Jose Franco and Miguel Franco and eight grandchildren.
Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday at Lawn Funeral Home in Tinley Park, with a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Michael Church in Orland Park.
At the service, Mr. Gonzalez’ son said, his sombrero will be placed on the casket, which will pass through a “charro salute” of hats held aloft by the horsemen of the charreada.