Forty years ago, Al Castañeda fulfilled his dream of starting a restaurant in San Juan Bautista. He named it after his grandmother and today, Doña Esther’s has become a gathering place for tourists and locals alike, drawn by the casual family-friendly atmosphere, live music and traditional Mexican fare.
When Castañeda retired in 2015, his daughter Tami Castañeda-Huaracha stepped up to carry on the tradition of great food and service and is hosting two days of celebration to mark the anniversary of her father’s restaurant.
On March 22, the founding date, customers lined up long before the doors opened, ready to take advantage of the day’s special menu, greet Castañeda and feast on the landmark restaurant’s authentic Mexican cuisine.
“On this 40th anniversary, I am thinking of how grateful I am,” Castañeda said. “A lot of people who are here now I have known for a very long time. Thank God for them and for all the patrons who have come in over the years. And thank God we have been able to keep these doors open.”
As the dining rooms, patio, and parklet quickly filled up, Castañeda slowly circulated from table to table, greeting customers and treating everyone with the attention his grandmother Esther paid to family and guests who came to her San Juan home, where her cooking was always available to anyone who stopped by.
“We have been very blessed,” Castañeda said. “And we have always taken really good care of our clientele. They know that we appreciate them. They have helped us weather the hard times better than some of the other businesses here. And it has been fun—it has been a blast.”
Meanwhile, Castañeda-Huaracha seems to be everywhere at once. She has worked at Doña Esther’s since it opened and prides herself on knowing how to do every job in the place. She showed it on March 22, checking reservations, seating customers, bringing out orders—even making the ground beef tacos that were offered for 40 cents all day.
“Today it is a little crazy,” said Castañeda-Huaracha, “but it is a good crazy and a fun crazy. That is what we were expecting and we are going to make sure everyone has a great time. And that everyone will be enjoying their meals.”
Testimonials were easy to find among those seated at the tables. San Juan native Patsy Patino said that whenever anyone asks her for a recommendation of where to eat, she always says “Go to Doña Esther’s!”
“I love this joint,” she said. “Al knows everyone and everyone knows Al and Tami. They are fixtures of San Juan Bautista, and they will work with you if you want a nice family dinner or a party. They always go out of their way for you. And in this day and age, we need that, don’t we?”
Castañeda opened his restaurant at around the same time as playwright Luis Valdez brought his famed El Teatro Campesino to town. The restaurant and theater company have had a close relationship ever since.
“Doña Esther’s has been one of the pillars of this town,” Valdez said. “Al has always been so human and so sociable that it has extended to his restaurant. He would partner with us at our events, but what impressed me was that he would do that for people for funerals. He would give free catering and I always have thought that is a very humane thing and consistent with Al’s personality. His daughter Tami is continuing his commitment to the community and I hope they have many more years ahead.”
The 40th anniversary celebration continues on March 25, when, by a city proclamation, the block in front of the restaurant on Third Street will be closed in order to stage events commemorating the restaurant.
There will be live music, including a performance by Mariachi Juvenil Santa Cruz, as well as entertainment by Showbiz.
The special menu will be available again, as well as a celebration beer crafted for the occasion by Brewery Twenty Five. There will be hourly raffles for prizes and Castañeda will be there to greet old friends and new arrivals.
While he has slowed down a bit, and is officially retired, Castañeda still thrives on being among the customers.
“I would be happy with 10 more years for myself,” he said, “then Tami can run it for the other 30 years.”
And Castañeda-Huaracha looks even further into the future. “It has been an honor to be a part of this restaurant founded by my father, honoring his grandmother. Families have been so important to our success and I am hoping maybe my own family, my kids, will want to take it over someday.”
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