By Neil Farrell
Over the years, Morro Bay eatery Taco Temple has brought a lot of joy to countless thousands of diners with its imaginative offerings and laid-back atmosphere. But perhaps no one is ever going to get more joy out of the place than its new owner, long-time chef and restaurateur, Jimmy Leage.
Leage, 56, was born in San Luis Obispo and grew up in Morro Bay. “Grandpa Tiger and his wife started the Harbor Hut in the early 1950s,” Leage says while relaxing before the restaurant opens and the daily rush arrives. “My earliest memories are of getting people sodas at the restaurant. I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life. I washed dishes and bussed tables in high school.”
He went to work at Brebe’s by the Pier in 1977 in a building that would eventually be purchased by his family and rechristened the Great American Fish Company.
“Dutch Tenhoff was the chef at Brebe’s,” he recalls. “He taught me quite a bit.” A side trip to Hawaii for a couple of years furthered his cooking knowledge, as he worked “in some really nice restaurants.”
“I came back in 1979 and went to work at the Harbor Hut as a cook,” he says. The family bought Brebe’s and Leage moved over to the new place working under a number of fine chefs and running the place for many years. Time flew by. “I worked there for 32 years,” he says.
But last year, after a bout with colon cancer, Leage said he was ready for a change. By chance his long-time friends, Adam and Donelle Pollard, were ready to give up Taco Temple. The Pollards built one of the area’s most popular restaurants offering a “California fusion” style. (They recently opened Flavor Factory in the former Nibble Nook location in the Cookie Crock shopping center on Quintana Road).
Indeed, Taco Temple, 2680 Main St., has been a must-try restaurant for many years, garnering statewide and even national and international praise from food and travel writers. Leage proudly displays a feature article from this past December in the S.F. Chronicle; the first major recognition under Leage’s ownership for Taco Temple.
It’s been just over 6 months since he called in a few favors and got some silent partners to buy the restaurant and they’ve continued its unbelievable success.
Leage said he and Adam worked together for about 3 weeks before the change over and that the recipes that made the place famous stayed. “All I’ve done is use his recipes and added my own little flare from my past experiences.”
He also kept the whole staff, which eased any transition pangs. “I’m constantly amazed at how much business we do every day,” he says. Given the nature of the whole “fusion” concept of food, Leage says he feels that he has a lot of freedom now. “I love the Embarcadero,” he says, “but here is better. Here I’m not held hostage to the menu like at GAFCo.” Now, “I get to cherry-pick what I want to offer. I get what’s fresh.”
As a child his other grandpa ran one of the original sport fishing boats. “I guess I was kind of a wharf rat,” he laughs. “I’ve known a lot of the commercial fishermen over the years.”
His illness, which was diagnosed in February 2015, changed things for him. “Cancer gives you a whole new perspective on life,” he says. “I feel blessed to be here.” And for the first time in more than 32 years, he’s his own boss and immeasurably happy.
“This is my own place,” he says. “No one is looking over my shoulder,” or taking a percentage of his gross receipts. He did bring along two workers from GAFCo., to Taco Temple, which has 29 employees. “This place is a gold mine and I didn’t want to come in and change everything.”
He’s trying to get out of the kitchen more, greeting customers and helping the wait staff. He laughs recalling a time when something was spilled and he got down with a rag to clean it up. “This guy wanted to shake my hand because I cleaned it up myself.”
He put in an outdoor to-go window to relieve crowding in the dining room and has some other changes in the offing, including remodeling the outdoor patio putting in a beer and wine bar and a barbecue, plus live music. They also reopened on Tuesdays and take credit cards now too, he says. One thing that seems certain, the smile on Leage’s face is genuine.
“I am humbled and so happy to be here,” he says. “This is the happiest time of my life.”