Rosemary Aguilar grew up in rural Gardner in the 1940s, not fantasizing about someday opening a restaurant. Then she moved to Colorado Springs, fell in love with a man who had stars and menus in his eyes, and never looked back.
Rosemary, who died Sept. 20 at age 80, opened El Taco Rey with her husband Edumenio “Eddie” Aguilar in 1976, slinging made-from-scratch recipes to a community that quickly came to feel like extended family.
“The rice and beans, tortillas, the green chile … that’s what our mom cooked at home, and that’s what we cook at the restaurant,” said daughter Jana Aguilar Mitchell, 51. “It was successful from the beginning … just home-cooking, and my mom and dad working side-by-side.”
Eddie, a civil servant, would finish work in the dining hall at the Air Force Academy, then head downtown to join his wife and six kids — five daughters and a son — to close the day at their hole-in-the-wall restaurant at 330 E. Colorado Ave., where even the smallest hands were part of the team.
“We grew up there. It was and still is a family affair, a family business. My dad was a good cook, but my mom was a great cook,” said Mitchell, who now runs the restaurant with her twin sister, Judy Aguilar Allen. “My dad would say the recipes were his family’s recipes, but my mom would say that it’s her recipes. We still don’t really know for sure ... but we think it’s our mom's.”
A good restaurant has good recipes, sure.
A great restaurant has that plus staff who make you feel like you belong, even if it’s your first visit.
The outpouring of public grief after Rosemary Aguilar’s death is something Mitchell said she wishes her mother could have seen — even though she probably wouldn’t have believed it.
“Last night I looked at the post I put on Facebook and I think there were almost 900 comments,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think she realized the impact that she had on this community, and we didn’t realize the impact either until we saw all the comments. We were all blown away, and we’re still in shock at just the beautiful things that people have said.”
Rosemary and Edumenio met in the 1950s after both moved from their respective Colorado small towns to the Springs and found work at the now-closed Indian Grill on Pikes Peak Ave. Even though the restaurant dream wasn’t a deep-rooted one for Rosemary, it turned out to be a perfect fit.
“My mom always had her door open to anybody. You come to her house, she’d right away start cooking, offering you something to eat,” Mitchell said. “Growing up, we always had company, and she was always in the kitchen cooking. Her kitchen was always warm, and she always had a meal for everybody.”
Those meals always included chiles. (In fact, in 2018 USA Today’s quest for the Best Chile Verde in Colorado ended at El Taco Rey.)
“'Comida sin chile no es comida,’ is what my mom would say. And that means, ‘Food without chiles is not food.’ She would say that, and then she’d always say ‘glory to God,’ in Spanish,'” Mitchell said.
Faith also inspired another of “Momma” Aguilar’s favorite words of wisdom: “‘Do everything as unto the Lord and be honest in all things.’ That’s what she would always tell us, and we all live by that,” Mitchell said.
Eddie Aguilar died in 2018, and Rosemary Aguilar took more of a backseat role at the restaurant as her daughters took over day-to-day operations.
“She was still in charge, she still came by all the time and made sure we were doing things right, but she was of an age that she just couldn’t do it like she used to do it,” Mitchell said.
She said that her mother’s death early Monday morning was a shock to the family. Rosemary recently had undergone surgery on her legs but she was on the mend, recovering at an in-patient rehabilitation center.
“We were expecting her to come home … because she had been doing so well, but then we got a call that she had died in her sleep,” Mitchell said. “Our hearts are broken, but you know for us, as Christians, we believe that she’s safely home. We’re going to miss her, but we’ll see her again.”
El Taco Rey is closed this week but will reopen Sept. 27, Mitchell said.
A public memorial service celebrating Rosemary Aguilar is planned for 11 a.m. Oct. 3 at Heritage Pentecostal Church.
“We know that a lot of our customers want to come and pay their respects. We welcome them to come," Mitchell said.