By AUSTIN SMITH
Luis Zamora lives by a simple creed: treat others as you want to be treated. You feel that not long after meeting him. Even as a stranger, you quickly feel like you’re a friend or family member. There’s nothing artificial or phony about him.
Lucky for the College Area, his down-to-earth authenticity permeates throughout his taco shop, Penelope’s Mexican Food, in the same way.
When Zamora moved into the property at 7102 El Cajon Blvd. two years ago, he knew he was coming to a different College Area than the one he had visited as a teenager. It had improved, become more family oriented and a bit gentler, just as he had become as an adult. But it had surprised him how embracing the community and neighbors would be towards him and his business.
The same changes Luis saw along El Cajon Boulevard in the College Area are the same changes he saw in himself which matured him from the 15-year old dishwasher running the streets of Imperial Beach to the family-oriented business owner he is today.
His dream was to bring the authentic Mexican comfort food his mother made for him as a child to a community that would appreciate it. Luis assures his customers that “nothing comes from a can”.
The labor of love isn’t only seen in the food. At any given time, you can find Zamora behind the grill, working the register, or completing one of the many construction projects on the property. He even built the outside dining area in the parking lot to accommodate his customers through the pandemic with his own hands.
Yet, Zamora knows he hasn’t come to be successful on his own. Besides having had his mother help him curate the menu from the very beginning, Zamora credits his College Area neighbors and fellow business owners for supporting his efforts.
Speaking about when he first arrived to the business corridor not knowing what to expect, Zamora says that the College Area Business District and its Executive Director (Jim Schneider) welcomed him with open arms.
“Jim came by, I started doing some research and I was like ‘without knowing, I came to the right place,’” he recalled.
Customers come from all over San Diego county including San Ysidro, Chula Vista, Mission Gorge, La Mesa and Rancho San Diego but Luis believes his College Area customers are special.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be right here,” Zamora said, adding that there have been five Penelopes to come into the restaurant simply because they shared its name. Each time a smile came to his face as he remembered why he got into the restaurant business.
The shop had been named after his niece who passed away months before her first birthday. He knew his restaurant, like her, would make an impression on people.
“I want people to know they’re going to come and they’re going to first of all have amazing food,” he said. “They’re going to feel like they’re at home. You come here and you feel like you are part of the family. That’s how I treat my customers.”
— Austin Smith writes on behalf of the College Area Business District.