By Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ (December 2008) - Regular customers at Las Palmas Taco Bar swear by the crispy chicken tacos, the huevos rancheros, and the carne asada. But the homeless people who quietly line up at Las Palmas’ side window come for the rice and beans, which are given free to anyone who knows the code phrase –“beans and rice and Jesus Christ”.
For twenty years, Las Palmas owner Rick Mendez has given a cup of hot rice and beans to anyone hungry enough to ask for it. Mendez and his sons Robbie and Ronnie hand out anywhere from ten to 35 servings of fresh-cooked food every day, along with acceptance and, sometimes, a blessing.
“I give them a cup of hot food and encouragement, and sometimes I’ll pray for them, if they want,” said Mendez. “I was trained in prayer by a pastor who brought me to the Lord.”
Before his own religious awakening and recovery from alcoholism 20 years ago, Mendez’ feeling toward the street people was not so gentle.
“Before I found Christ, I used to run the homeless out of here,” Mendez said. “They’d come in the restaurant and dig in the trash, and I’d cuss ‘em out.
“But once I met the Lord, it changed me,” he said. “It opened my eyes, and the next time I saw somebody in the dumpster, God said to me ‘get this guy something to eat from the table’.”
Ever since, Mendez has made feeding the poor his personal ministry, seeking nothing in return for his daily kindness. “I do this to bring attention to Christ, not to bring attention to me,” he said.
In the early years, Mendez and his staff would hand out food at any time. But he has had to limit the hours for free food to between 8:30a.m. and 11:30 a.m. “It was starting to interfere with my paying customers, and sometime the homeless people can be obnoxious and not kind,” Mendez said. “But if someone doesn’t know, and comes at the wrong time, we’ll give them food and tell them to come back during the right hours next time.”
Mendez says the goodwill generated by his giving has enriched his life directly and indirectly. He has been approached in his gym and at work by people who say his encouragement helped them get off the street. He says his personal anger, pain and emotional baggage have dropped away since he discovered the Lord and opened his heart.
Mendez has been married for 30 years to his wife Liz, who he met at his grandfather’s restaurant, Las Palmas on The Alameda in San Jose, when they were both 15 years old. The two teenagers were smitten at first sight, and fell in love at the staff Christmas party that year.
"We were just a couple of kids holding hands that night," Mendez said. “We just enjoyed our 35th straight Christmas together.” January 1 will be the 15th anniversary of Mendez taking control of the restaurant upon his father’s retirement.
Mendez sons Robbie, 22, and Ronnie, 24, are both in college and looking at careers outside of restaurant work. But Mendez says the business will be there if either of the boys changes his mind, and decides to be the fourth generation of the family to run Las Palmas.
The homeless men who came to eat on a recent morning say the help at Las Palmas comes with no strings attached.
“He has our respect, and people out here would do anything he needs to be done,” said Dakota, who has come here for years. “But mostly he’s just there for us. He doesn’t ask for nothing.”