Kiefer Sutherland has come by for quiet nightcap. Kirsten Dunst has stopped in with friends. Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus have popped in (before and after their break-up).
The Starlite Room, which has been around for 58 years in Studio City, is now seeing a newfound hipness. The tiny bar on the corner of Moorpark and Tujunga was just bought by the family that turned the iconic Henry’s Tacos into Cactus Tacos on the corner, and they plan to revamp the interior a bit and turn it into more of a sports bar.
And so, there’s no better place for a “De-Patch-ure” party for Mike Szymanski, who was laid off from his job as Studio City Editor. (I want to have a community party for everyone, using the money I have received from the company as severance, and it will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Please drop by.
“We want to encourage the people who have come by all this time, but we want to invite other people in, too,” said Marlo Tornel, 23, who runs both the Cactus Tacos #3 and the new club with his family.
When Henry’s Tacos moved down the block on Tujunga and family member Janis Hood retired from it, stars such as Elijah Wood, Aaron Paul and some of the Modern Family cast came to the defense of the gringo taco joint. Now, the family that has taken over is hoping to someday own the entire corner that encompasses the taco stand, bar and a few parking spaces on the iconic corner that has been owned by the same man for more than six decades.
“We want to turn this into a very fun place,” said Martha Silva, who is Marlo's mother and plans to be making a special margarita as well as serving tacos for the party Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Cactus Tacos is trying to establish an identify separate from Henry’s.
“We are a different kind of taco stand, we are real Mexican food in a fast-food environment,” Marlo explained.
Henry’s moved a few hundred yards away with more parking and management under the longtime chef Omar Vega and his family. They replaced Studio Sub, which couldn’t compete with the chain sub sandwich places in the neighborhood.
Cactus has vegan options that aren’t up on their already extensive menu, and their burritos can cost up to $9, nearly triple what it costs at Henry’s. Not much at Henry’s has changed. The menu of $1 “gringo tacos” remains standard.
“We don’t want to seem like we are in competition with Henry’s Tacos, we love them,” said Marlo “I have been hanging out at the restaurants since I was 3 years old, I have always wanted to be a chef. My mother and father showed me everything. I knew it tasted good.”
Although he plans to stick with traditional Mexican traditions, Marlo wants to try new things. They will have traditional cheeses and fresh cilantro and onions, but cook only with canola and olive oil, no lard, and use kosher salt.
“People love Henry’s and they have a loyal following, we just hope they’ll try us too,” young Marlo said.
The family opened up a Cactus Taqueria at 4370 Beverly Blvd. about 23 year ago and a few years later at 950 Vine St. They’ve earned the moniker “the best tacos in town” by a few food reviewers while over the hill in the San Fernando Valley, Henry’s Tacos reined as a most popular stand.
Daddy Mario Tornel, 48, learned how to cook at a catering school in Mexico and ran a restaurant in Tijuana before moving to Los Angeles. He met Martha Silva, and they also owned a coffee shop for a few years on Melrose and Vine. Then, they opened their taco stands in Hollywood.
The family lives in Valley Glen. Marlo went to Valley View Elementary School in the Cahuenga Pass, and then to Millikn Middle School and later to Riverside Military Academy in Atlanta before landing in the prestigious local cooking academy.
Young Marlo has three sisters, Christine, who wants to go into business administration, Grace and Adrianna, who went to the school at nearby St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church where the family still volunteers each year for their festival fundraiser.
When the Henry’s location became available, the Mario put in their two cents.
“We didn’t think we had a chance to get it, we weren’t sure they wanted another taco stand in the location,” Tormel said.
Sources said that the competition for the location included some major chains, like Starbucks, but also pizza, sandwich and other coffee shop inquiries.
“They came to our restaurants and tested our foods, they were very picky,” Martha said about the landowners and their representatives. Now, they are renovating the small space and trying to change it somewhat from the familiar Henry’s.
Martha is often at the counter, and the face of Cactus Tacos/Studio City. She’s also the artist who painted the cactuses on the side of the building, and she’s the one who is making the salsa—a secret recipe from Marlo’s grandmother.
“A lot of our recipes come from my mother-in-law,” laughed the daddy Mario.“We marinate the meat, we have good fresh vegetables,” Martha added.
Mario said, “We want to make Studio City proud. We will have good things to offer, we will always have a good rating. I’ve never had a B rating in my life, always an A. That requires keeping the place clean and having everything the right temperatures.”
The younger Marlo added, “We know that people in the area are very conscious of what they eat, and we want to try things especially for the people in Studio City.”
Many of his colleagues in culinary school aspire to become five-star Michelin chefs. Marlo Tormel is thrilled that right after school, he will have a chance to add to his family’s traditional Mexican recipes and create his own taco.
He knows it will be hard work.
“My dad works very hard, I have always seen him work, and my mom, too,” he said. “We know what it’s like to run a good restaurant.”