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Four decades of chili con queso at Laurel's Toucan Taco

On Aug. 1, 1972, Laszlo and Lita Payerle, a pair of teachers in Laurel, embarked on unknown territory: they opened a Tex-Mex franchise called Tippy's Taco House. In 2008, they sold the restaurant to their daughter, Virginia Reeves, and this week, the restaurant celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Customers lined up at the door to be the first in the restaurant for the 11 a.m. opening on Wednesday, Aug. 1. A banner outside waved at Gorman Avenue, advertising anniversary specials including $1 tacos.

A rare sight on the anniversary were original owners Laszlo and Lita Payerle, who arrived in their chile-red Toyota Celica with the vanity license plate "Toucan." The pair sat in the corner of the dining room for part of the afternoon and greeted by name almost every customer who entered to have lunch.

"It does feel just like yesterday," said Lita Payerle, who remembered how, in the first week of opening on Tuesday Aug. 1, 1972, "by the time it got to Sunday, we had run out of food."

"It was hairy," Laszlo Payerle said. "Quite frankly we knew nothing about running a business, much less a restaurant."

When the Tippy's contract expired in 1992, the Payerles changed the restaurant's name to Toucan Taco.

The restaurant is still called Tippy's by "all of the old customers," said Alan Phillips of Ellicott City. Reeves describes it as a "dive-y" establishment with no real "curbside magnetism." The restaurant is perhaps best known in Laurel for its signature house chili con queso recipe.

Reeves offered to buy the restaurant from her parents in 2008 to keep it in the family.

It was a convenient move for Reeves, her parents said, because her current job at a computer graphics company didn't have the flexible hours she needed to care for her son, Hunter.

Recipe adjustment

The Payerles said they originally looked into buying a franchise because they weren't making very much money as teachers. They looked at ice cream and pizza franchises before deciding to sign a contract with Tippy's. They used all of the assets they had to buy into the contract and buy the space in a small strip mall on Gorman Avenue.

"We would've been bankrupt if this had failed," the Laszlo Payerle said.

But they didn't fail. Reeves said they made out all right.

"My parents put the three of us through college with that place," Reeves said. Her younger siblings, Andrew and Victoria, all worked in the restaurant during summers waiting tables and prepping food.

The original Tippy's recipes were OK, said the Payerles, but they knew how to make them better. They made a few adjustments to the chili con queso and the taco meat seasonings, and the effect was unexpected.

"The recipe for the chili con queso, when we first took over the business, was ghastly," said the Payerles.

After a few adjustments made by Laszlo Payerle, the queso became a hit. So much so, that "people would take tubs back home with them," he said. Lita Payerle remembers telling customers the proper way to ship the queso depending on if the arrival destination was warm or cold.

"It's kind of an institution," said Phillips, a weekly, or sometimes more frequent, customer since 1983, when his coworkers at Fort Meade brought him there for lunch.

"They've got the best Mexican rice I've ever tasted," he said, "even in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona; it's not as good as here. Most of the people coming here have been coming years and years and years. It's because of the food, and the people, too."

The Payerles and Reeves attribute their success to primarily one thing: keeping things the same.

"If we dollied it up, they'd be disappointed," said Lita Payerle. "People like the stability."

"We serve considerably good food reasonably fast and at a good price," Laszlo Payerle said, a business model they've stuck by.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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