In one corner of the Mission, there’s a block of long-standing institutions: a 100-year-old diner, a Prohibition-era speakeasy-turned-bar (so rumors say), and the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, which is just hitting 100 years in business. Or maybe 102.
“I kind of stay out of trying to provide any definitive history of the place, because I get refuted every time,” said Aaron Presbrey, 49, who took over ownership of the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor more than eight years ago. He embraces the hazy oral tradition and uncertainty — the painted logo on the window says “EST. 1919,” while the restaurant’s vintage calendars decorating the walls claim it’s been around since 1922.
Presbrey and Chef Barry Moore, old colleagues from Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack, were looking for a restaurant space they could afford on their own when a friend referred them to the small spot on 24th Street near York Street.
“We ended up buying this place with the intent of making it our own restaurant. But then we kind of quickly realized, like, it was a really important part of the neighborhood,” Presbrey said. “And we’re both people that appreciate history and tradition and legacy and that kind of thing. So we decided to just try and improve upon it and make it the best Roosevelt Tamale Parlor it could be.”
Along with sous chef Juanita and Doña Maria, whose Mexican recipes they still follow, the two new owners simplified what was then a “giant” menu so they could make the food as fresh and as homemade as possible, Presbrey said. To keep their longtime patrons happy, they kept the classics, and tried to experiment when possible.
“Barry and I are both very creative people,” Presbrey said, noting that the nostalgia people have for the restaurant sometimes impedes innovation. To keep costs down and try to earn a profit, Presbrey and Barry both work as much as possible — on weekdays, the restaurant is only open 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., but the two are in the kitchen hustling by 9 a.m.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but I personally really enjoy that aspect of being connected to this community,” Presbrey said. “A couple in their 80s will come in and say, ‘this is where we had our first date when we met in high school.’”
Up until a few months ago, another fixture at the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor was their 110-pound dog, Keller, who was always stationed by the cash register. Named after Helen Keller, this Keller was deaf and perfectly unphased by people, starting out as a nightclub puppy before moving to the neighborhood.
“A few people made it clear they’re a little upset about the fact that there was an animal in the restaurant. But to that I just say, ‘there are other restaurants you can go to,’” Presbrey said with a smile.
He adopted Keller in the Castro as “by far the cutest” puppy in a litter, and the two were inseparable for nearly 13 years before Keller died earlier this year. Now, a large canvas painting of Keller’s likeness sits in his place.
And this is the attitude of the entire place: no frills, high-quality dining. The whole crew is quiet and focused. By the kitchen, there’s even a sign asking customers not to disturb the chefs. But the dishes, consistently executed to perfection — not to mention massive — speak for themselves.
The lease for the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor will end in a year and a half, and Presbrey is uncertain of what the future holds. “If there were a way for me to keep this going but not be here all the time, that would be kind of ideal,” he said.
He’ll be 50 in a couple weeks, and is itching to spend some of his time on other activities. “The more things are mixed up and all over the place for me, the more excited and happy I am.”
Songwriting and relearning the piano are in the cards: He’s been lead singer for a couple bands, once sang choir and a cappella, and, before coming to the Mission, he was managing the music venue the New Parish in Oakland.
A few years ago, when Presbrey’s team temporarily closed down the Roosevelt because of financial and health issues, he thought it wouldn’t reopen. He had also been accepted as a teacher with Teach for America. Since he taught high school after college, Presbrey is interested in exploring that path again.
But, since the restaurant reopened about a year later, Presbrey and his tiny team have been back at it.
For now, Presbrey can be found waiting tables, concocting margaritas, and baking desserts. And when he has a spare moment, he’ll spend it chatting with the customers. “People from all spectrums of this community come to eat here,” says Presbrey. And he’s proud of that. “I mean, that’s what it’s about. It’s about welcoming people into our home to be with us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said the vintage wall calendars at the restaurant read 1921, instead of 1922.