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Southwest Detroit’s Beloved Taqueria El Rey Burns in a Fire

The first appears to have started in the grill shack and spread to the dining area

The grill shack and much of the interior of Taqueria El Rey burned in a fire on Saturday, January 29, 2022.
Taqueria El Rey, a popular Mexican food restaurant in southwest Detroit, burned in a fire on Saturday, January 29, 2022.
Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

Taqueria El Rey, one of the most beloved restaurants in Southwest Detroit famous for its char-grilled chicken and tacos, was destroyed in a fire Saturday morning.

Daniel Fuentes, a manager and the son of owner Eliseo Fuentes, says that he was on his way to work just before 11 a.m. Saturday when he received a call that a fire broke out in the eatery’s adjoining grilling shack. By the time he arrived, the fire had spread out to the dining area, destroying much of the interior.

Fuentes said that no one was injured and he was awaiting a call from Detroit Fire investigators to try to make sense of what happened. Emails to city and fire officials inquiring about the fire were not immediately answered as of Saturday afternoon.

Regular customers and employees of Taqueria El Rey pictured outside of the restaurant after it burned in a fire on Saturday, January 29, 2022.
Regular customers and employees of Taqueria El Rey gathered following news that the restaurant burned in a fire Saturday morning.
Photo by Serena Maria Daniels
A sign of Taqueria El Rey, with apparent fire damage, on top of the building.
The sign that sits atop Taqueria El Rey appears to have fire damage after a blaze burned the eatery’s grill shack and much of the interior on Saturday, January 29, 2022.
Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

Taqueria El Rey has been a long-time staple in the community. Fuentes said his father opened the shop around two decades ago, at first, only focusing on tacos. His dad connected with another guy in the neighborhood who had garnered a following for preparing and selling grilled chicken out of his backyard. It was then that the elder Fuentes took over that concept and began making the chicken and then ribs from a small makeshift shack that’s connected to the main building.

Saturday morning, more than a dozen regular customers and employees gathered around the restaurant, while a steady flow of traffic slowed down to get a sense of the damage. Meanwhile, Daniel Fuentes and others were seen loading bottles of liquor and beer and whatever else that could be salvaged into the bed of a pickup truck parked out front.

One longtime employee, America Aleman, was among those in the crowd. She says that employees have an internal group chat to fill each other in on whatever work needs to be done that day. Saturday morning, she says someone posted a photo of the fire and she quickly tried to reach management to find out what was going on.

“They told me it was going to take a really long time for us to reconstruct,” says Aleman.

Aleman says when she first moved to Michigan, Taqueria El Rey was among the first places that she and her family would eat and she’s worked at the establishment off and on over the years.

“I’ve been coming here for like over 20 years,” she says. “I’ve seen it change over the years and then for this unfortunate thing to happen, it’s...”

During the pandemic, she says, it wasn’t clear whether the restaurant would be able to weather the uncertainty of COVID-19 restrictions, but the spot remained a stronghold in the neighborhood, often with lines of customers out the door. The restaurant dropped its long-standing cash-only policy to accept debit and credit cards, bolstered its takeout option to adhere to social distancing measures and launched Taco Tuesday specials to give customers who might be experiencing pandemic-related hardships an affordable dining option.

A sign with taco specials posted in the window of Taqueria El Rey.
A sign in the window of Taqueria El Rey featuring the restaurant’s Taco Tuesday specials, a deal the eatery launched during the pandemic in support of struggling community members. The restaurant burned in a fire Saturday, January 29, 2022.
Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

While other places were considering raising their prices to address supply shortages, Aleman says “we try to keep our costs as low as possible to kind of keep it in the community, because everybody’s struggling, you know?”

Daniel Fuentes says his father is currently in Mexico on an extended vacation. As of midday Saturday, he hadn’t had a chance to share the news with his dad.

“My head’s a little spinning right now, you know? So it’s just hard to wrap my head around this situation,” says Fuentes. “The damage is so extensive, it’s going to be hard to get it back.”

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