For many people, a trip to the Minnesota State Fair would not be complete without stopping at El Sol Mexican Foods. The stand was a mere 10 feet wide and tucked in a corner of the Food Building when Refugio Mendez first served his tacos and burritos at the fair in the early 1970s. Fairgoers flocked to his booth then, and nearly four decades later legions line up outside the stand, which has expanded its menu and moved to a more visible spot replete with counter space at Carnes and Underwood Avenues.
"He had an excellent product and a loyal following," said Dennis Larson, the fair's license administration manager for commercial space. "His food has not been Americanized. It's all indigenous Mexican recipes. And the nachos are to die for."
Mendez died Saturday at Woodlyn Heights Healthcare Center in Inver Grove Heights of complications from Parkinson's disease, heart ailments and various illnesses. He was 87.
His son, Simon, and grandchildren will operate the stand at this year's State Fair.
Born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Mendez grew up in the Loveland, Texas, area. He didn't have an opportunity to finish high school. He worked in the south Texas cotton fields part of the year, and traveled to Minnesota to pick beets in the summers.
In his early 20s, he settled on St. Paul's West Side and took a job with the Swift meat packing plant. When the company closed in the late 1960s, Mendez opened a concession booth at the State Fair, said his son, Simon, of St. Paul.
Mendez's big break came when he teamed up with O'Neill Amusements in the 1970s. Through that association, he served Mexican delicacies and built up a large following at celebrations in places such as Delano, Elk River and Buffalo, and at the Anoka and Ramsey county fairs. He was a fixture at the Steele County Fair in Owatonna, Minn., which recently gave him a 40-year plaque, his son said.
"El Sol Mexican Foods is the highlight of almost every Owatonnaian and Steelecountyian," said Jim (Corky) Ebeling, president of the Steele County Fair. "He missed one year, and everybody asked, 'Where is he?' When he came back [the next year] word was out within an hour. There were always lines in front of his stand. His food is very popular, and he was enjoyable to work with."
Mendez operated stands at the Festival of Nations, the Back to the '50s car show and old South St. Paul rodeos. But his favorite event was the State Fair, where many people knew him simply as "Coke," a nickname he got as a child.
"My dad was a people person and loved this business," Simon said. "His favorite part was talking to people, and he had people coming back year after year."
Mendez was in a wheelchair during the State Fair last year, but that did not keep him away from his food stand. "There were people he just had to see," Simon said.
Mendez was a member of the Midwest Showman's Association and a 50-year member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul, where he used to hold fundraisers by selling tacos. In his early days, he was a member of the Knights of Columbus and "was proud when he was inducted," his son said.
In addition to his son, he is survived by a brother, Placido of West St. Paul, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Services will be at 11 a.m. today at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 401 Concord St., St. Paul. Visitation will be one hour before mass at the church.