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Photos by MM Carrigan | Collage by Cathryn Virginia

Suburban Ghosts: How Laurel, Maryland’s Toucan Taco Keeps Hanging On

Not much stays the same in an area that is constantly repopulating itself with new blood and new fast food joints. But this Tex-Mex restaurant is different.
May 18, 2021, 10:00am

MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.

Inside Toucan Taco, the wood-veneer panel on the walls is original. The drop ceiling remains untouched, water stains and all. The tables are nearly fifty years old, but sturdy. Most importantly, the Mexican gravy-smothered burritos and golden queso on the menu are the same as when the establishment was known as Tippy’s Taco House, a Dallas area-born Tex-Mex franchise dating back to the 1950s. 

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Toucan Taco sits in a faded asphalt lot at 315 Gorman Avenue, in Laurel, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The old glass and brick building is an oddity, stubborn and settled, weary of the modern suburbia surrounding it. Washington, D.C. and its suburbs are transient in nature. Government employees and contractors commute in and out, moving their families in and out, before moving on. Not much stays the same in an area that is constantly repopulating itself with new blood, new fast food joints, and new steakhouse chains. But Toucan Taco is different. 

The restaurant and building are family-owned. In 2008, owner Ginger Reeves bought the restaurant from her parents, who first opened for business as a Tippy's Taco House franchise in 1972. Now she runs it with seven employees, though her father still comes by every month to check on the place, get a bite to eat, or take home a pint of queso. 

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Changes made to the space over the years can be tracked on one hand. In the 1980s, her parents swapped the 1970s fabric window blinds for a more modern plastic. After the franchise agreement expired in 1992, they changed the name to Toucan Taco, after the family pet bird, though many of the older customers refuse to call it anything else but Tippy’s. Reeves renovated the bathrooms a few years ago, then, during the pandemic, used the dining shutdown to replace the battered original flooring. The new linoleum floor looks and feels period-perfect to my eye, but Reeves tells me some of the regulars are angry about it.

 “They don't want one thing to change,” she said. “They want it kept preserved in perpetuity.”

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At Toucan Taco, the tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and tostadas look and feel like something from vintage recipe cards—full of bright yellow American cheese and gravy, served in foil containers with plastic forks and knives whether you’re dining in or out. Recalling an era when the American suburbs were more familiar with grilled cheese than quesadillas, the item is defined on the menu as “a sandwich.” The menu, which boasts that Toucan Taco serves Laurel’s finest Mexican food, reassures customers that “sour cream is always available on the side.” Burritos are available regular or “sunken,” in a spicy gravy. They also serve hot dogs and beer by the pitcher. 

Then there’s the queso, which the menu calls “the delight of Laurel.” Remember the cheese dip your mom’s best friend brought to Superbowl parties that proved she knew how to melt a block of cheese product to pure perfection? That’s the kind of queso this place has. “Liquid gold,” customers call it. In reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor, people tell stories of buying multiple pints and driving sixty-miles round trip to obtain it. It’s front-loaded with a spice blend that goes straight to the dopamine release system. It gets in your head. 

Such reviews are often written in a tone of exalted relief, as though they’re reporting back to the other survivors of an apocalyptic event. They want to assure the world of one thing, an answered prayer: It still tastes the same. It still looks the same. It’s still there. 

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***

Tex-Mex captured the hearts of Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, when scrappy franchises like Tippy’s—and later, large chains like Chi-Chi’s—introduced the suburbs to mammoth-sized combination plates of nachos, burritos, and enchiladas. And while this cheesy, beef-filled Texas interpretation of Mexican cuisines has found its way onto Applebee’s menus and Superbowl party spreads across the 50 states, the Tex-Mex restaurant is becoming increasingly a thing of the past—especially as the families that opened them retire. It doesn’t help that the cuisine is still dogged by the narrative—not without a teeny tiny bit of truth—that Tex-Mex is an inauthentic, cheese-covered, American monstrosity. So why is Toucan Taco still here?

One answer might be found in a sadness for things that are gone. Toucan Taco is one of the last surviving independent businesses in Laurel. One by one, the local sub shops and burger joints have been replaced by Panera and Five Guys. The narrow, numbered streets in historic downtown Laurel funnel traffic into the state highway, with its compounds of Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters. The Tastee Diner still stands, as does Bart’s Barbershop and Nuzback’s bar. Dottie’s Awards and Trophies is still churning out local bowling alley tournament prizes. But the list gets shorter every year.

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“Nearly everything else in the past 20-plus years has been a revolving door between failed small businesses and large chains,” local historian and writer Richard Friend told me. He runs a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of Laurel, an independent town that also served as one of America’s earliest suburban communities, due to its proximity both to the nation’s capital and Baltimore. “Tippy’s Taco House was one of the first places I noticed as a child when my parents and I moved to Laurel in 1977,” he said. “It was my very first time trying Mexican food. I’m still a fan to this day.”

Suburbia metamorphosizes. Or perhaps it metastasizes. The mom-and-pop deli becomes a frozen yogurt place becomes a vape shop. When something goes out of business, everyone mourns and then buzzes with rumors of what might sprout up in its place; most of the time, it's a storage unit building or 24-hour pharmacy. When the Tastee-Freez in Laurel (unrelated to the Tastee Diner) was demolished in 2009, it revealed ancient ruins underneath: some tiles, from when it was the town’s first McDonald’s. Now there’s an international fast food chicken franchise in the spot.

Laurel, Maryland is like every suburb, every good place to raise a family, every hometown you want to get away from: It’s haunted. There are ghosts. Just a mile from 315 Gorman Ave are the apartments where the estranged wife of a U.S. representative murdered their four children in 1965. In 1972, Presidential candidate George Wallace was shot in the Laurel Shopping Center, during a campaign stop; the spot where it happened is now home to a Bank of America. Everyone remembers the girl who was abducted and murdered behind the bowling alley in 1973. And that the murderer lived across the street from the Tippy’s.

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Therein lies another possible explanation for Toucan Taco's improbable survival: You think it’s nostalgia that’s tugging at your heartstrings when you order a sunken burrito or a double of queso, but maybe they just offer respite from the hauntings. 

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When we met up in April 2021, Ginger Reeves was wearing a face mask emblazoned with the restaurant's logo: a grinning cartoon toucan. Standing on the other side of a year that forced more than 110,000 restaurants in America to close, according to The National Restaurant Association, she said it would take more than “a little virus” to take them out—although during the peak of the pandemic, they processed more orders for carryout than usual. 

Reeves has several theories for Toucan Taco's longevity, including some supernatural ones. The first, though, is buying “the same quality ingredients.”  Toucan Taco's famous cheese dip, for example, is made from the exact same brand of cheese that the restaurant used back in the 1970s.

“‘Cheaping out” on ingredients, to me, is the number one mistake of restaurants trying to save a few dollars, especially if there is a crowd expecting a certain, special taste,” Reeves said. “That's also the reason why we don't experiment with new menu items: What [customers] crave is why they are in there in the first place.” She continued: “We have some customers that literally don't know what they regularly order—the waitress just brings them their ‘usual.’” 

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And yet, she admits, the restaurant's continued success is hard to explain: “I actually tell people that it's its own little microcosm—it takes care of itself. Maybe it has a guardian angel? Some employees have mentioned seeing a ghost, and this is throughout the years, not prompted by any outside info, so, maybe.”

Reeve’s parents, Laszlo and Lita Payerle, were teachers before they became restaurateurs, hustling out a middle-class existence with three kids. They decided to get into the restaurant business to make a few extra dollars, researching pizza and ice cream joints before deciding to sign a Tippy’s Taco franchise. “Quite frankly, we knew nothing about running a business, much less a restaurant,” Laszlo told The Baltimore Sun in 2012, in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the restaurant. 

Reeves tells me that when Tippy's first opened, her mother was a piano teacher, teaching lessons in the evenings and working lunch shifts at the restaurant. Her father was a music theory professor at the University of Maryland by day, and picked up nights. Reeves grew up having her middle school events catered by her parents and listening to stories around the dinner table about the hardships of running a restaurant. She and her two siblings also worked shifts in high school, although she does have childhood memories of bussing tables and crawling around on the floor looking for change.

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One day, according to Reeves, the Tippy’s corporate office in Texas missed a shipment of the spice blend. “That's when my dad experimented with what we had on hand, and decided he could improve upon it,” she said. Reeves refers to the custom mix he created as “the secret ingredient that keeps you wanting more.” Now, she told me, it's specially blended for Toucan Taco by Baltimore-area company, Vann’s Spices.

***

There are two types of people who talk about this place. The first type of person assures you, It’s still there. It tastes the same. The queso is some kind of drug.  The second type of person doesn’t get it. “Dismal,” they say. “A dump.” “As disgusting on the inside as it is on the outside,” writes one reviewer on Google. 

Another reviewer, on Yelp, calls it “a dive in the best kind of way.” It is exactly that. It’s the kind of place you want to give to people, like a small gift. You want to take them here to marvel at the wood panels and aluminum-framed doors and 1970s food. You want to convert them. Get them haunted. Maybe I’m writing this because I want to give Toucan Taco to you, too.

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Prior to April 2021, I hadn't eaten inside of a restaurant in 406 days. But I’m vaccinated, and other people have been doing it all along, so maybe it’s safe. Or maybe it’s not, depending upon which news article you read. But I was craving Toucan Taco, and I wanted to see how they’d fared during the pandemic—by which I mean, I wanted to see if it was still the same. How can anything still be the same after the year we’ve had?   

I took my good friend Dave, who is also vaccinated and has worked at a grocery store this entire time. He has seen some shit. He thought it would be fine. 

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When we arrived for lunch, the first thing I noticed was the old wood tables were spaced apart a bit more generously than I remembered. A few of them, good soldiers, were removed from active duty and stacked against the wall. Almost every table had diners. We nabbed the only table one was available, in the corner.

I imagined ordering a beer, but it was one in the afternoon, and I’d never drank a beer at lunch when I wasn’t on a beach vacation. Dave mentioned the time he ordered pitchers of Modelo with friends, as though he'd been fantasizing about day drinking in the Toucan Taco, too. 

Instead, we ordered two large Diet Cokes. The menu specifies in bright red letters that only the large size comes with free refills. I wondered about the small soda refill scandal that must have caused this clarification to be printed.

As we looked over the menu—more of a formality since we already knew what we’re ordering—Dave and I argued about who introduced whom to the place. I learned about it in grad school from other starving students who spoke of the queso like a (sub)urban legend. Dave, a dive restaurant enthusiast who has lived in the area since birth, insists he has always brought friends here. To marvel at the wooden walls and foil troughs full of meat and cheese. To say, look at this. Just look at it.

And so I looked around the place. Amen: the countertop filled with parrot figurines, a quarters for kids with cancer sign, a box of miniature York Peppermint patties for 27 cents each. Next to the cash register, the available queso containers taped to the wall to show the sizes. The plastic chili pepper lights and decorative sombreros. The handwritten sign affixed on the cooler door that states, in thick hand-written letters, that they have fountain soda. The “fountain soda” was underlined. Another assurance. 

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It felt safe. We signed a notebook with our names, for contact tracing. The building felt ventilated, not by modern air systems and purifications, but the way in which old buildings feel flimsier, lighter, more open. A few ceiling fans kept the air circulating. But maybe it just felt safe because it felt like home. 

I heard the crunching of tortilla chips, the sound of someone blowing their nose. I overheard a customer ask, “How have you fared the last couple months…err, year?”

“We’re here. We’re here,” Reeves replied, with a resigned laugh. 

At another table, a man was talking on his phone. “I’m at Toucan,” he said. The person on the other end of the line must have been confused. “Tippy’s,” he clarified. "I’m at Tippy’s.” 

I ordered a burrito, a taco, and a single of the queso. My friend Dave decided to go all in with the burrito dinner—sunken in the “spicy Mexican gravy” and accompanied by Mexican rice and pinto beans.  After ten short minutes, everything came out molten hot. It’s the kind of food where you’ll consider risking burning off the top layer of your mouth and maybe part of the esophagus. 

By the time I was three bites in, my stomach started pumping out panic “fullness” signals, as though it knew I was about to encumber it with the whole foil trough of food. I poured the spicy salsa on to help everything slide down. I needed it faster. More. Whatever is in “the secret ingredient,” it’s addictive. 

My friend joked that this food was like a “Hungry Man dinner,” and he wasn't wrong. It’s heavy and dense. Something feels vintage about it. It’s emotionally filling. It’s authentic to nothing anymore—except, in Toucan Taco's case, to Laurel itself.

I asked Friend, the historian, why he thought Toucan Taco’s has stuck around for so long. 

“It sounds cliché, but I think any successful business simply has to have A) a great product, B) great service, and C) loyal customers. A and B typically result in C. Toucan Taco embodies that model almost to a fault. I don’t know if this happened by design or not, but I also think that they’ve been helped by not changing over the years. With the constant turnover of businesses in Laurel, there’s something refreshing about being able to revisit an old favorite—and find it exactly the same as it’s always been.”

It hasn’t changed. It’s an assurance. 

A few weeks have passed since I last dined in Toucan Taco. And I’m craving it again. It’s in my head. I want the queso, and not a polite single serving this time. I want the tub that I saw taped to the wall. I want it by the pint. I also feel a strange need to check in—to make sure that the menu hasn't changed, that the wooden walls and tables are still there. I’m haunted. I need to let the ghosts pass through my body.

MM Carrigan is a Baltimore-area writer. Their writing has most recently appeared in Bon Appétit, Eater, Literary Hub, and The Rumpus. They tweet @thesurfingpizza and edit the literary magazine Taco Bell Quarterly @TBQuarterly. Their website is mmcarriganwriter.com.