How Roberto’s Taco Shop Became a Southwestern Chain, Phenomenon

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Roberto’s, Alberto’s, Filiberto’s, Juanberto’s… If you’ve lived in or around the southwestern states, chances are you’ve seen a variation of a «Berto’s» fast food Mexican restaurant, most with a identifiable orange yellow and yellow color scheme and an italicized logo.

Over the years, the restaurant’s variations (we’ll explain how and why there are so many) are commonly defined by their carne asada burritos, beef tacos, and rolled taco combo plate, among other flavorful Mexican dishes.

It’s hard to miss and what you see is what you typically get anywhere there might be one.

The concept originates from Roberto’s Taco Shop, a family-owned fast food restaurant that initially opened in San Diego in the late 1960s.

The founders were Roberto, the store’s namesake, and Dolores Robledo, who immigrated from the small town of San Juan del Salado in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.

One of the country’s first Mexican fast food chains, family-run Roberto’s Taco Shop introduced an innovative model that would spur imitators in the Southwest and even abroad.

A Roberto’s taco shop in Chula Vista, CA, opened in 1980 by Raúl Robledo. Courtesy of Roberto’s Taco Shop; LLCCourtesy of Roberto’s Taco Shop; LLC

More than 70 variations have been reported. in the southwestern states and most are owned by people from the same region of Mexico where the Robledos are from. Roberto encouraged his family members to work with him and eventually advocated for them to open their own stores once they became familiar with the system he helped establish.

“My dad had the frame of mind that this is the land of opportunity. And if you are willing to work hard, there is enough business for everyone,” recalled José Robledo, 52, the youngest of Robledo’s 13 children. «He was always there to help everyone who wanted to get into the business.»

An immigrant’s American dream

Roberto first came to the United States in the mid-1940s. under the bracero program, that allowed millions of Mexican men to work legally in the country through short-term labor contracts. He would later have various jobs, including being a waiter, working in construction, and washing cars on the weekends. When he brought his wife and his children, Dolores was packing sardines at a cannery and washing towels for the hotel industry for a linen company.

In 1964, the family purchased two adjoining houses in San Ysidro, near the US-Mexico border. One house was where they lived, the other was converted into a tortilla factory to make corn and flour tortillas to deliver to other restaurants. They also sold bean and cheese burritos, chile verde burritos, and chile colorado burritos at the time.

The Robledos began making tortillas in San Ysidro, California, to sell to restaurants before opening their own eating establishments.
The Robledos began making tortillas in San Ysidro, California, to sell to restaurants before opening their own eating establishments. Courtesy of Roberto’s Taco Shop; LLC

“At first, that’s all they sold,” said Reynaldo Robledo, 57, the 12th of the Robledo children.

The Robledos would eventually acquire four businesses and operate them under the original name of the establishment, such as La Lomita and El Gallito.

It wasn’t until the fifth store they bought, a burger joint, that they renamed it «Roberto’s #5» after Roberto’s.

«It was the first Roberto’s … from then on, every restaurant we opened was Roberto’s Taco Shop,» said Reynaldo, who grew up working in the family business as a cook.

The business became a rite of passage for Reynaldo and his brothers; At the same time, his father encouraged the workers on her ranch to open their own stores.

Reynaldo owns a Roberto’s Taco Shop franchise in Nevada and says there are 60 stores in the region. In addition, there are also 20 stores in California and one in Texas, all owned by the original family.

But that is only a part. More than 70 variations of ‘Berto’ have been documented throughout the Southwest, and there is a possibility that there are more that do not use the «Berto» homonym, according to several family members.

“All those people are where my dad is from,” Reynaldo said.

While other store owners may resent people copying and imitating their own restaurant, Roberto appreciated it.

From Roberto’s to Alberto’s

This is how the variations of «Berto» arose.

Roberto took pride in the fact that the restaurants served freshly prepared food every day, a standard he maintained in all the stores he owned and leased, and which his sons continue today. When Roberto found out that relatives weren’t serving food with fresh ingredients in a store they rented for him, he wasn’t too happy.

“My dad told them to change the name. And then Alberto’s came,» said Reynaldo, referring to the first variant. «The saying goes that in their building, they had Roberto’s with only block letters and they bought a can of paint; they changed the R to an A and then half of the O; they just painted half to make it an L.»

Copycats tend to copy a similar orange and yellow color scheme and hat-related logo formula. Some added green and red colors and others opted for different logo fonts or ditched the hat altogether. But the menu stays relatively the same.

Most of the store’s original recipes are derived primarily from Roberto and Dolores. Back then, Roberto’s menu was limited.

Roberto's Taco Shop's acclaimed carne asada burrito.
Roberto’s Taco Shop’s acclaimed carne asada burrito.Courtesy of Roberto’s Taco Shop; LLC

The restaurant initially had six combo plates and four types of burritos. There are now 22 combo plates, 12 types of burritos, and chicken, fish, shrimp, and chimichangas, among other items that were later added to the menu. The California burrito, carne asada burrito, rolled tacos, and beef tacos are among the store’s top sellers.

Laura Torres worked with the Robledo family from 1979 to 1984 in one of the original stores in San Diego. Her aunt Dolores, known as «Doña Lola» to her and others, convinced her to work in the business after she had difficulty finding work in Chicago.

“I stayed to work with them and I liked it,” Torres said in an interview translated from Spanish.

Now 65, Torres owns four Hilberto’s Mexican food stores, two located in San Diego County and two in Glendale, Arizona. They all follow a similar model introduced by Roberto’s Taco Shop, including the logo, colors, food menu; even the employees are all from the same «little ranch» in Mexico, he said.

Business has allowed him to have two houses, a 2017 Range Rover and pay for vacations in Cancun, Los Cabos, Spain and Italy.

They have also stimulated more variations; «There are an infinite number of them now,» Torres said.

«It’s normal… The people who worked with me learned and went to other states,» he said, referring to former employees who moved elsewhere to open their own stores.

Reynaldo said he only sells franchises in Nevada to employees who have worked with the family for a minimum of 10 years. Even now, more than five decades later, he says 95% of them are still people from the same Mexican town where his parents were from.

Outside a Roberto's taco shop in Nevada in 2014, when the family was in town for Roberto's 50th anniversary gala celebration.
Outside a Roberto’s taco shop in Nevada in 2014, when the family was in town for Roberto’s 50th anniversary gala celebration. Courtesy of Roberto’s Taco Shop; LLC

A pioneer of Mexican food — exported abroad

Roberto’s Taco Shop has also been recognized for introducing the California burrito, an item that includes fries, carne asada, guacamole, pico de gallo, and cheese. The coveted item has widely become a menu staple at Mexican restaurants in the region. But the mystery remains as to who submitted the article, since neither Reynaldo nor José take credit on behalf of their family.

«I won’t take credit for that. I know we started with a rolled taco; we started with the carne asada burrito. We started a bunch of things, but the California burrito, I don’t remember what age it came in,» Reynaldo said.

«California burritos were invented by my nephews in their restaurants. And it took many years before we started selling them. But now it’s one of our number one sellers,» José said.

«Who would have thought we could sell carne asada fries? In the late ’70s, there was no such thing,» Reynaldo said.

Although the family had expanded to Miami between 1999 and 2009, the stores closed because Reynaldo deemed them too far and out of reach to manage. But Riliberto’s, owned by American Indian Dhruve Patel, who is not related to the family and ranch from which most Berto’s hail, is the only known Berto’s chain that has restaurants in India and serves crispy masala tacosas first reported by the Arizona Daily Star.

Celebrity restaurateur, author and award-winning host Guy Fieri Featured to Las Vegas Roberto’s Taco Shop and called the carne asada burrito «the real deal» on Food Network’s «All-Star Best Thing I Ever Ate.» While Fieri has eaten many carne asada burritos in his lifetime, something was different about Roberto’s, as «he’s simple, straight to the point,» he said in the episode that aired. Larry Himmel, humorist and storyteller, including wrote a poem about the store and frequently featured the store on CBS affiliate KFMB-TV.

For Reynaldo, having the store appear on television programs and in the news is a great achievement. But it’s a reminder that “you can still come from Mexico and do something for yourself,” he said. “My dad always said ‘all it is, it’s hard work.’”

A family photo that includes the late Dolores Robledo, in the center, flanked by relatives.
A family photo that includes the late Dolores Robledo, in the center, flanked by relatives.Courtesy of Roberto’s Taco Shop; LLC

The elder Robledo died in 1999 and Dolores died in 2020. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that although the couple separated, they remained friends and consulted about the stores. They would set up a trust for their restaurant business and pass it on to their surviving children.

“To this day, we keep that tradition in the sense that we look at ourselves, we want to improve our operation. We don’t really pay too much attention to the competition. We do our thing and wish everyone success,» said José.

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