Gene Gallegos has run into a lot of people since he and his sister, Anita Sharp, decided to close El Rancho Grande, the iconic Mexican restaurant in Kearns that the family has operated for 47 years.
“I see them, and they just look at me saying, ‘Why?’,” Gallegos said. “I was at the grocery store this morning, and someone said, ‘Why, why?’ ‘Well, I’m starting to retire.’ ‘Well, we know that — but why?’”
Saturday will be the last day in business for El Rancho Grande, at 4750 W. 4850 South in Kearns. It’s likely to be crowded, as regular customers try to order their favorites — chile verde, enchiladas, rice and beans — for the last time.
Gallegos said the restaurant made it through the transition from take-out to sit-down service after the pandemic wasn’t fun, but they did OK. Like everyone in the business, they’ve dealt with staffing shortages, he said.
The main reason Gallegos and Sharp are retiring is simple: They’re in their 70s, and, he said, they want to spend more time with their spouses and families. Gallegos said he would like to travel, golf and fish.
Ever since Gallegos announced the restaurant would close, new and long-standing customers have been asking him to change his mind.
“They say, ‘Don’t go away. Give us the recipes. Can you find somebody else to take it over? We love your food. I grew up on this food. I’ve been coming here for years and years and years,’” he said.
Pam Watson has been coming to El Rancho Grande for 46 years. Her first visit was with her dad, when she was a teen. More recently, she and her husband, Tim, have been making regular trips from their home in Herriman.
“I remember when they used to have mariachi bands on Friday and Saturday,” she said. “Once — I can’t remember if it was our anniversary, or a birthday — they came up and sang to us at our table.”
“It’s an icon,” Tim Watson added. “Especially out here, there’s not that many places where you can get home-cooked food or non-chains.”
The Watsons visited a couple weeks before the closure, and managed to get in after only a 10-minute wait — a rarity in the restaurant’s final weeks, when wait times have stretched to two or three hours.
Pam Watson said she probably won’t try to get in on Saturday, the final day. “It’s going to be too crazy,” she said. “But I may stop by and just see what’s going on.”
Gallegos and Sharp grew up in the restaurant business. Their parents, Eluterio “Lute” and Agnes Gallegos, opened El Ranchito, a drive-thru Mexican restaurant, in Kearns in 1975. At the time, Gene Gallegos said, there were maybe a dozen Mexican restaurants in all of Utah.
In 1986, they built El Rancho Grande, a sit-down restaurant. Ten years later, they expanded the restaurant from 4,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet.
“It was pretty busy from the start,” Gallegos said. “They closed [El Ranchito] down for eight months, nine months. Then when we re-opened, it got really busy. And we’ve been busy ever since.”
Many of the recipes were handed down to Agnes Gallegos from her mother, Gene Gallegos said — including the tamales, which are bis favorite. Some recipes, such as the chile verde, were tweaked over the years, he said, and the restaurant has added new dishes, such as the popular Baja burrito.
(Eluterio Gallegos died in 2017. Agnes Gallegos died in 2020.)
Gene Gallegos said he and his sister “did everything we had to do to keep it going, from cooking to busing tables, whatever we had to do, from an early age. Then we got people to take over those positions. And we’ve been happy with a lot of people that we’ve hired. We’ve had a lot of kids who came on when they were 16, and now they’re almost 50.”
Sophia Robertson, who waited in the vestibule for a table on Thursday afternoon, has been “coming here since I was little. I had my graduation party here. My whole family’s been coming here since I was little.”
Thursday was the first anniversary of when Bob and Cheryl Breneman, from Taylorsville, first discovered El Rancho Grande. They drove over for one last visit, standing outside because the waiting area and vestibule inside were overflowing
“We’ve been coming in every week for the margaritas, usually on Thursdays,” Cheryl Breneman said. “We’re heartbroken because it’s been so difficult to find a Mexican restaurant in our area.”
El Rancho Grande’s final weeks have been something beyond busy. With so many people waiting to eat there before it closes, Gallegos said, the restaurant has been nearly running out of food by the end of the day, especially more popular items.
The support, he said, has been overwhelming.
“I think my mom and dad wanted a nice place, a nice restaurant, so I think by being there all these years, and seeing all the love that everyone’s been giving us, remembering my parents, it’s just a great legacy for them,” he said. “It just touches my heart, and my sister’s heart, my whole family’s heart.”
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