Salvador Lopez, the founder of Taqueria El Farolito and the amateur soccer team of the same name, died last Tuesday, at 70.
He “was an extremely hardworking person who was a role model to many,” said his son, Santiago. “His goal was always to connect people and build a community through soccer and food.”
That’s for sure.
Though many visitors of the bustling 24th and Mission intersection may not realize it, Lopez’s presence looms large on two of its corners. On the southwest corner is Taqueria San Jose, a restaurant he co-founded with two other men in the late ’70s and eventually divested from. On the opposite corner is El Farolito, which Lopez opened in the early ’80s and grew into a local empire.
Lopez was also a pioneer of local amateur soccer. He founded the El Farolito soccer club in 1985, a team that went on to win the U.S. Open Cup in 1993. And after purchasing and running a team in Mexico for years, he remained a central figure of the local “papy league” scene, a reference to teams of middle-aged men.
Asked about his father, Santiago described a patient man who acted with calm and grace under pressure in all his endeavors. And, as his restaurant grew in profile, Lopez would shy away from the extra attention and dismiss praise as “no big deal,” Santiago said. “He was like a machine. He wouldn’t think about the results. He was focused on his performance and making everything better.”
Lopez was born on Nov. 9, 1950, in Guanajuato, Mexico. According to Santiago, he migrated with his father to Mexico City when he was a teenager, helping his dad with small jobs, like carpentry. The two eventually found work at several restaurants in Mexico City, where Lopez “learned the famous quesadilla suiza,” his son said. Around that time, the young Lopez met his wife, Balvina, and they eventually had two daughters.
In 1975, Lopez moved to Half Moon Bay, where he and Balvina worked at a nursery and sold their flowers at the San Jose flea market. They saved the money that would eventually go into opening Taqueria San Jose on Mission and 24th streets with two other men he met at the nursery, Santiago said. It was also in Half Moon Bay that Lopez would raise Santiago.
“We were so young then,” said Roberto Sanchez, one of the two men with whom Lopez opened Taqueria San Jose. “It was a long time ago.”
After Lopez divested from Taqueria San Jose, Sanchez went on to start El Taco Loco, which he also grew into its own small empire. David Valle, the third partner, kept San Jose and continues to run it.
“I saw him nearly every day,” Sanchez recalled — three friends with three taquerias on three corners of 24th and Mission. “Yes, of course, with friends you always have problems, but nothing serious. We always talked, he always stopped by.”
Meanwhile, Lopez was building up his soccer club, El Farolito, joining the San Francisco Soccer Football League (SFSFL) in 1985.
“His main goal was to be able to play in one of the most competitive soccer leagues in Northern California” in a “promotion and relegation” format, said a representative from the San Francisco Soccer Football League, referring to a system in which a team can be “promoted” to a better league based its performance.
And Lopez, nicknamed “Don Chava,” eventually realized that goal. The league representative said that El Farolito “reached the highest level of competition within the Bay Area,” competing against the best teams in the area. El Farolito, under the name “CD Mexico,” eventually won the U.S. Open Cup in 1993, then the highest honor in American soccer.
“Such mavericks have always led to great adult soccer competitions in the Bay Area and beyond,” the spokesperson said.
And those memories will also live on with his son, Santiago. “Everyone wanted to play and be in Farolito,” Santiago said, recalling the “incredible battles in Balboa Boxer Stadium,” where teams took the field and thousands watched and cheered.
In 1994, Lopez bought a minor-league Mexican franchise he renamed the Gallos of Aguascalientes, which had some success but which Lopez eventually sold. As a detailed SF Weekly profile of Lopez reported in 2007, Lopez became consumed by San Francisco’s “papy squads.”
“Lopez wants to win at all costs, and the efficient machine named El Farolito doesn’t run on burritos alone,” Lauren Smiley wrote in the SF Weekly article. She reported that Lopez recruited former professional footballers to strengthen El Farolito’s papy squad and described scenes where he’d discreetly pass some players small white packets containing cash after games for their participation. The practice was nominally against the rules but accepted in reality. Lopez “vigorously” denied doing it.
In recent years, Santiago said, his father stayed involved in the business and soccer club. But more recently, he and his sisters had begun the process of taking the reins. Santiago has been in charge of the soccer club for the last 10 years, while he and his sisters have been “slowly stepping it up” with the taqueria.
“We’re all working hard to keep everything intact,” he said.
On Tuesday, Jan. 5, Lopez died of a sudden complication that ended his life in a matter of days, Santiago said. He was living in the Mission and died at the hospital. He is survived by his wife and his three children.
Sanchez, his former business partner, saw Lopez about a week before he died.
“He looked good, but thin,” Sanchez said. “So I told him he needed to come to Taco Loco and have some tacos,” Sanchez said. His friend, he said, laughed.
Lopez might have accepted a torta instead. “He loved tortas,” Santiago said — an item Lopez always worked to improve but never got quite right. “He was never able to find that kind of bread you could find in Mexico.”
El Farolito’s torta nonetheless turned into something of its own, a mouthwatering amalgam of beans, cheese, jalapeno, served on a roll with fried cheese and best eaten with a slab of steak.
“Nothing will change,” Santiago promised. “We will continue his legacy — that’s for sure.”