On May 27 in the fading sunlight of early evening, a gaggle of aging punk rockers, old hippies, and eccentrics gathered on the corner of Grayson and Elmira streets, where Taco Land once stood.
Velvet Taco, the new resident of the property, built a diagonally-facing brick wall that includes a striking tile memorial bearing the likeness of Ramiro “Ram” Ayala, the attitudinous Taco Land owner and “patron saint” of the San Antonio underground music scene until his untimely death.
The dates on the memorial, 1965-2005, refer not to Ayala’s lifespan, but that of Taco Land, the tiny, grungy bar where he first sold 10-cent tacos and beers at two for a quarter, then bought the property for a purported $21,000 in 1969. It evolved first into a biker bar, then in the early 1980s became the second home for what Hickoids singer Jeff Smith termed “outsider music,” and the scraggly castoffs, rangy stragglers, peculiar personalities, and otherwise aberrant folk who appreciated it.
As Smith acknowledged at the dedication ceremony for the memorial, the initial Taco Land regulars “did not care for the punk bands at all,” which included notables Boxcar Satan, GWAR, and Dead Milkmen, who wrote a song about the place. But Ayala appreciated the music and the crowds and would tell people who didn’t like it to “’get the f— out if you don’t want to listen’ … he provided us a safe place for outsider music, and it remained so up until his death.”
Taco Land ended in the early morning hours of June 24, 2005, when Ayala, doorman Douglas “Gypsy Doug” Morgan, and bartender Denise “Sunshine” Koger were shot in an ignominious robbery. Ayala died that night. Morgan hung on in the hospital for three weeks, but ultimately died from his grievous wounds. Shot in the back after handing over an estimated two hundred dollars to the criminals, Koger survived to testify against the killer, who was convicted and currently sits on death row, appeals exhausted.
“The music community has never bounced back from it,” said Anjali Gupta, an ardent music fan who frequented Taco Land first as an Austin resident, then as a San Antonio writer, editor, and cultural worker. Ayala had created much more than a venue; an “infamous rock ‘n’ roll mecca,” she once wrote, that could never be replaced.
Tributes poured in from former denizens of the club, including a memorial blog with hundreds of contributions, a touching song and video by Snowbyrd, and a lyrical account of the tragedy by music historian and musician Hector Saldaña of The Krayolas.
Attorney Loretta Hewitt commented on Saldaña’s YouTube post, “I was the prosecutor for [killer] Joseph Gamboa. This was one of the cases that stays with a prosecutor forever. Well written and performed.”
That a physical memorial to Ayala and Taco Land exists at all represents the long struggle of Gupta, Smith, and other former denizens of the scene to properly honor this important piece of local history.
After the murders, the club went through a period of dormancy as Ayala’s two families fought over ownership. In 2011 the property was purchased by developers, and in 2013, San Antonio entrepreneur Chris Erck opened a new venue called “Viva Tacoland,” joining the two words. According to the Handbook of Texas, Erck promised that it would become “Taco Land 2.0.”
However, in promising that a “full-service bar will feature 36 beers on draft, 99 bottles of beer and a collection of signature cocktails,” according to a report in the San Antonio Current, Erck’s far fancier restaurant represented a significant departure from the original occupant.
“I’ve been on the record of taking great exception to some of the stuff that went off with Viva Tacoland,” Smith announced. “So much of that was just the attitude, the blatant disrespect for what had happened here.”
Even Erck’s brother Jefferson, who played in bands at Taco Land and was close to Ayala and Morgan, said he disagreed with his brother’s approach. “Regardless of Chris’s involvement … I don’t think any business that came into that location should have used Tacoland in the name.”
Following a legend
Clay Dover, the CEO of Dallas-based Velvet Taco’s 24 restaurant locations, made himself aware of the history of the property he planned to refurbish.
“When you’re following the steps of a legend, you know, you want to make sure that you’re taking the right footsteps,” Dover said. “We did a lot of homework on this and made sure that we talked to the right people. We wanted to pay our respects to Ram and the Taco Land legacy.”
Gupta had reached out through the main Velvet Taco website with an offer to help, and received a response within the hour from Cassie Cooper, director of marketing.
Velvet Taco then contacted Smith, Taco Land regular Bell Solloa, and others, to explore how to properly honor the history of the revered location. Perhaps most tellingly, the company offered to pay for the memorials, which include the tile piece made by artist Mig Kokinda and incorporating a rendering of Ayala by tattoo artist Terry Brown.
A forthcoming plaque made by James Salazar of Signs By Tomorrow will likely hang on an original muralized cinder block wall fragment that was incorporated into Velvet Taco’s redesign, in the shade of the much-admired 200-year-old live oak that towers over and through the riverside location.
‘The only little light’
In comments at the dedication, Smith acknowledged that times change, as do property owners and property values. Onetime Taco Land employee Roland “Nightrocker” Fuentes recalled the state of the once sketchy neighborhood that now boasts the Pearl.
“Taco Land was nothing like it is now. This was the ghetto. I mean, you wouldn’t dare go down there,” he said, pointing to the underside of the River Walk bridge abutting the property. “This was the darkest part of the city. And the only little light was this place right here.”
For some shows, 300 sweaty people would crowd into the tiny space of the 68-capacity room, Fuentes said, breathing life into the otherwise empty neighborhood. Many would then take to the patio for a smoke, leaning on the imposing tree.
Making a rare visit to the former Taco Land property for the dedication, Buttercup bassist Wayne Erwin-Kazunori Cole — known to locals simply as “Odie” — expressed astonishment that the already massive oak had grown in the years since he’d last visited.
“I love that tree. God damn!” Odie exclaimed. “It grew. It’s fat! I don’t remember that limb being so low, but also the girth of it just it blew me away. Because my forehead has kissed it I don’t know how many times.”
Buttercup bandmate Erik Sanden also recounted his forehead “kissing” the low-hanging limb in a memorable Taco Land-themed Pecha Kucha presentation from 2013. Buttercup’s first show was at Taco Land in 2001, and Odie finagled a rented rehearsal space out of Ayala on the property.
Odie also played the final Taco Land show with The Swindles, and deeply felt the loss when it all ended. He said he cut off his signature beard and left it high in the branches of the oak, and tied his omnipresent cowboy hat to the front door, as his own personal memorials.
Cruel to be kind
Ayala had a colorful lexicon of curse words and obscenities with flexible meanings. Many who knew him recall “f— you!” as a term of endearment, and his last words before a feckless gunman ended his life.
Odie acknowledged that Ayala was “a bad motherf—-er” who “didn’t take sh-t,” but refuted the common perception of the man.
“He sounds like this curmudgeon, and he’s not. He was totally super kind hearted and sweet. He was a really really nice guy,” who gave shelter to unhoused people in the neighborhood, and truly supported the musicians who called his bar home. Ayala surprisingly showed up at an offsite Buttercup gig one night, joining Odie and Sanden for an impromptu afterparty.
Ayala also possessed a singular work ethic, Odie said, regularly showing up to work at 9 a.m. after drinking with Odie late into the night. Sanden recounted that Ayala charged $1 for a tallboy, and that the price never went up.
Revisiting Velvet Taco for the memorial dedication, Odie noted one telling update. He said his friend Juan Ramos, who had also played the original Taco Land, emerged from the newly renovated restaurant holding a Lone Star tallboy. “He goes, ‘I just paid $5.41 for this!’” Odie said, laughing.
A possible coda
Jefferson Erck approves of Velvet Taco’s approach and said he plans to visit. “I like the new memorial. … They are listening to the old regulars and are showing a lot of respect to Ram, Doug, the old crowd and to the artists contributing work. It’s a genuine thing and isn’t a gimmick to sell happy hour drinks.”
Acknowledging that most chain restaurants and stores don’t pay such close attention to the history of their locations, Dover said, “I try to say that we’re anything but a chain.” He emphasized the individual character of each Velvet Taco, including a renovated landmark gas station in Dallas and a triangular building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. When someone in Nashville suggested basing the design for a new location on the San Antonio model, Dover countered that each Velvet Taco must be unique.
“We’re still pretty small, but we’re slowly growing and as we go to a community —whether it’s San Antonio, or Austin, or Charlotte, or Atlanta — wherever we go we want to have a special feel and an approach that the locals … feel like it’s their restaurant, it’s their Velvet Taco. … That’s just part of our brand DNA, something that I’ve tried to encourage as we’ve grown.”
Smith gave vocal appreciation to Dover’s efforts and the general manager of the San Antonio location at the dedication. “We salute Jacob [González] and Cassie and all the folks from Velvet Taco for being good to their word, being good corporate citizens,” he said.
“It’s important for us to remember, as this city is changing so fast and everything’s getting bought up so fast, is save what you can and preserve what you can, and try to figure out where to fight your battles,” Smith declared.
If there is an end to the decades-long saga of San Antonio’s legendary dive bar Taco Land, this piece of collective wisdom might be it: some losses cannot be recovered, but proper acknowledgment helps.