A crumbling, water-damaged ceiling, a warped perforated with holes, a basement smelling of mold and sewage: These are things owner Alberta Canales and her employees say they've tolerated at the original El Burrito Loco in North Portland for the past few years.
The building that houses their business, a bar, and several apartments is 85 years old, but the staff did the best they could with their aging space. They managed to survive and thrive for 16 years—and make enough money out of it to open up other locations—until this week.
El Burrito Loco was forced to close the doors on its original location because the building's owner, Siamak Lotfi, declined to renew the business' lease. The news depressed Canales.
"It feels like he took 16 years of my life," Canales says during a Friday interview with the Mercury at the North Portland location, a few blocks west of N Interstate, on N Rosa Parks. Canales slumps forward, leaning her arms on a teal table, as she talks about the lease situation and the problems that have plagued the location since Lotfi's purchase of the building in December 2000. Canales says she's been asking for a new lease for a long time but wasn't offered one. Lotfi's lawyer finally sent Canales a letter telling El Burrito Loco to vacate by the lease's expiration date: Tuesday, July 31.
Canales says she's frustrated at how Lotfi has handled maintenance concerns. She alleges that Lotfi doesn't fix the building's problems, such as the aging plumbing system, until it was too late. (She describes one alleged incident where he pumped sewage water out of the restaurant's basement, which had flooded because of a broken pipe, into the street. According to city inspection records, the last time any permit-authorized plumbing work was done in Burrito Loco's space was 1986.) The apartments above El Burrito Loco make the plumbing a serious concern for the restaurant; Canales' son Albert worried leaks would spill into the dining area and kitchen.
"When it comes to structure and plumbing, that's [the landlord's] duty," Canales says.
Lotfi could not be reached for comment by press time, but his lawyer Richard Speight offered an official statement on Lotfi's behalf.
"He's not really capable of doing the structural repairs as long as the building is still occupied," Speight says, declining to specify why El Burrito Loco wasn't offered a new lease.
Kenneth Woods, the proprietor of a tavern that operates out of the same building as El Burrito Loco, says he hasn't had any trouble with Lotfi for repairs.
The N Portland location's closure means that the only Burrito Loco still operating will be the one on NE 82nd. Canales says she'd like to open another one in North Portland, but she hasn't found an available property.
"I don't want to rent from anybody because I don't want to go through this again," Canales says.
Despite the property's age, its value has increased dramatically over the past few years. According to Multnomah County, the property's market value has more than doubled during Lotfi's ownership—from $157,000 in 2000 to $325,000 in 2006.