On a hot summer day, you can hear the leaves crackling on the trees in Boron. It’s not just because the triple-digit heat shrivels up nearly everything it touches. It’s because little else is moving on the often deserted streets of this eastern Kern County community.
But the town comes alive at 27075 Twenty Mule Team Road, the site of Domingo’s, a popular Mexican restaurant and watering hole for today’s “Right Stuff” aviation pioneers and space explorers.
Inside you find Domingo Gutierrez greeting, teasing and doting over guests who may have driven for hundreds of miles to savor Domingo’s tacos, fajitas and enchiladas. But they aren’t coming just for the food. They are coming to enjoy Domingo — the restaurant and the man.
Opening for lunch and closing long after dinner time, the booths and tables at Domingo’s regularly are filled by pilots and astronauts, military brass and enlisted personnel, and lots of Edwards Air Force Base families. The restaurant’s walls are lined with evidence of Edwards’ affection for Domingo’s and the restaurateur’s love of the military.
Gutierrez has been likened to the legendary Pancho Barnes, whose “Happy Bottom Riding Club” was a hangout for early aviation pioneers who flew over the area. It now is a tradition for shuttle astronauts to dine at Domingo’s just hours after landing at Edwards. Gutierrez, who holds the title of honorary commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center, greets the space travelers with “Boron water” — shots from his $150-a-bottle tequila.
But Domingo’s is not exclusively a military haunt. Customers also work at the nearby borax mine and at the solar energy plant, six miles to the east. Some call Boron their home. Others live in Lancaster, Palmdale, California City, Barstow and, yes, as far away as Bakersfield. The restaurant is listed on so many tourist and industry guides that it is common to find among the guests people from foreign countries.
From Domingo’s 1,600-square-foot, stucco-smeared building, the restaurant does a nearly $1 million a year business. The story of Domingo’s success is a mixture of hard work, love and the grace of God. Oh yeah, and throw in some prayers to end a curse.
At 47 years of age, Domingo Gutierrez stands a straight six feet one inch tall. His daily attire is a pressed shirt, dress trousers and a fashionable tie. Some might think Gutierrez is a bit overdressed for the hard-scramble, desert mining town. But he explains his customers deserve his respect, good food and clean service. It’s a formula that has worked at Domingo’s for two decades.
Gutierrez’s customers are loyal and so is the team he assembled to serve them. Many of the waiters, cooks and dish washers have worked at Domingo’s for years. “You surround yourself with good people, treat them well and you will succeed,” he explains. It is a philosophy that has evolved as he has traveled his own difficult road to Boron.
Fourteen years old and carrying his cousin’s “green card,” Gutierrez crossed into the United States with his brother. After living in Los Angeles for a short time, the pair moved to Lancaster, where his brother was hired to be a busboy in a Mexican restaurant. When Gutierrez was old enough to get a work permit in 1977, he hired on to wash dishes. Soon he became a busboy, then a waiter. A few years later, he was the manager of a Lancaster restaurant, supervising 38 employees. He opened a restaurant with a brother in Palmdale, but the arrangement soured and his brother bought him out.
With the money from the sale, Gutierrez slid behind the wheel of his car and headed to Bakersfield. That was in 1988. “I prayed to God very hard,” Gutierrez recalls.
As he passed through Boron, he picked up a copy of the Boron Enterprise. He read that a building on Twenty Mule Team Road was for sale. It was the fallout of yet another failed restaurant at that location.
By now Gutierrez had become a U.S. citizen. He had 11 years of experience in the restaurant business. “I knew I would do well,” he recalls. Plunking down his buyout money for the building, he set about fixing it up and advertising for business. He spread the word to Edwards Air Force Base, the borax mine, around town and around other towns.
And people came. On his first day, he did $1,100 in business. “There’s never been a dull moment since,” says Gutierrez, claiming running his restaurant is as much a hobby as it is a livelihood. In that first month, he sold $40,000 in meals.
“God has blessed me,” he says, smiling as he looks around Domingo’s dining room, waving at familiar faces.
Indeed God has. And Gutierrez made sure of that.
Before he opened for business, he invited a Catholic priest from his hometown in central Mexico to bless the building. “People said it had a curse.” Gutierrez and the priest prayed away the curse.
For a short time, Gutierrez parlayed his success to other cities. He opened a second restaurant in Tehachapi in 1990 and a third restaurant in Hesperia in 1991. But soon he realized he was spreading himself too thin. He sold those businesses to focus on Boron.
“If you are going to do a job, do it right, or don’t do it,” he says. Most days you will find Gutierrez arriving at his restaurant in the morning and staying until evening. His trip home for a midday break is no big deal. He lives with his wife, Stacy, and their three children, Domingo, 14, Victoria, 11, and Emilio, 9, in a large house across from the restaurant on Twenty Mule Team Road.
Railroad tracks run in back of his yard. Rather than finding the clatter of cars and honking of horns an annoyance, it seems to be just another Boron peculiarity that Gutierrez has embraced in both his restaurant and his heart.
Along a ledge that hugs the ceiling of Domingo’s dining room runs a G-gauge model railroad track. The engine pulls miniature cars, including one hauling borax and another hauling a space shuttle. The cars are gifts from friends and customers, switched out regularly for variety and to clean away the grease from the fajitas that sizzle on the tables below.
Gutierrez clearly loves it all — the variety of his customers; the eclectic blend of military, mining and desert memorabilia that litters the restaurant’s walls; and his life in Boron.
“It’s a good life here,” he says, pointing out that a person can easily drive to Las Vegas, Southern California, or the coast from Boron. Gutierrez has a bright yellow Hummer to make those trips. “It’s a good place to raise kids. It doesn’t have a lot of traffic.”
Gutierrez is Boron’s honorary mayor. It’s a title bestowed in recognition of his fundraising for the community’s chamber of commerce. In addition to the restaurant, he also owns several rental homes and the car wash in Boron. “Anywhere you go, you can be positive or negative,” says Gutierrez, explaining his fondness for Boron. “It’s what you create.”
He worries that children today will not have the same appreciation. “They don’t know what it’s like to have an empty stomach, to watch their parents farming from sun up to sun down. I knew there were opportunities in the United States, but I knew you had to work hard and earn them.
“Nothing is perfect. But where there is a will, there is a way.”
Domingo Gutierrez sits in the commanders seat of a shuttle craft in the spring of 2009 after it landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Domingo's restaurant has become a favorite with shuttle astronauts.
This article written by Dianne Hardisty first appeared on Oct. 4, 2009 in Mas Magazine, which is published by The Bakersfield Californian.