The Tamale Man

Perfecto Leon looks out at his customers as he prepares tamales for customers. (Photograph by Jordan McMahon)

From the beginning, restaurateur Perfecto Leon was fighting the odds.

He was born with bronchitis, and the doctors told his parents that their son would probably not survive.

After initially dismissing his father’s suggestion of naming their son Perfecto after the boy’s grandfather, his mother had a change of heart. Though she considered the name ridiculous, her son’s near death experience illustrated that the name was fitting.

Perfecto Leon grew up in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. He jokes that he prefers to eat food, not cook it, but by age 13 he was working in a restaurant, washing dishes. Eventually, he began cooking, and found his calling.

After years of working in Sonoran restaurants and raising a family, he moved to Tucson to help care for his son, who had become sick. Once in Tucson, he set up shop outside of the Safeway at 2940 W. Valencia Rd., where he began selling tamales to passersby. This business would come to support him and his family of seven for the next 26 years.

“Oh my goodness, I loved it,” Leon says of his tamale business.

“His personality is very happy;” says Eliza de la Rosa, Leon’s youngest daughter. “Anybody that sees him sees his love for God and his passion.”

He became known as “The Tamale Man” by Safeway shoppers. In addition to selling food, he also became a friend to his customers. “The people that came, they wanted to talk to me,” Leon says. “They wanted to tell me stories.”

Though he loved cooking and selling tamales, as well as interacting with the community, his motivation was always to support his family. As a father of five, finances could have been a concern, but Leon’s business thrived and he was able to send all of his children to the University of Arizona.

Despite the success, he says he knew inevitably it could not sustain the life that he wanted for his family.

A few years ago, he decided that it was time to move on. With an investment from his eldest son, Jose, Leon opened his own restaurant.

Most new restaurant owners worry about how to bring customers in, but according to de la Rosa, the optimistic Leon family feared they wouldn’t have enough seats for customers.

Inside Perfecto’s, 5405 S. 12th Ave., the  smell of rich, spiced tamales and beans fill the air as Mexican music plays through the restaurant’s speakers.

Perfecto Leon talks with customer Cristina Lem on Friday, Feb. 7 Lem and her husband, William, said that they have been coming to Perfecto's since it opened in 2009. (Ph
Perfecto Leon talks with customer Cristina Lem. She and her husband, William, have been coming to Perfecto’s since it opened in 2009. (Photography by Jordan McMahon)

That isn’t what brings people to Perfecto’s, though. Customers say they love the warm atmosphere and the welcoming attitude extended by its employees, who are mostly members of Leon’s family. Many days, customers will are greeted by Perfecto himself.

Customers appreciate the personal touch, says Cristina Lem, who has been coming to Perfecto’s since it opened in 2009. “The ladies always look out to see whom they’re serving,” she says, “and they’re always waving at us. It’s beautiful. They make you feel at home.”

While customers have their reasons for dining at Perfecto’s, Leon’s family has another explanation. “We believe in God,” says de la Rosa.  “We believed that anything that my father would do would be prosperous.”

The doors to Perfecto’s were opened by a man with a dream and a large family willing to pitch in and help.

“Working here was something that we all had to do,” says de la Rosa, “Everybody has their professions but we felt like this is our father’s chance to make it big.”

For her, it’s about giving back to the man who gave his children everything. “We want his dreams to come true,” she says.

The next goal of the dream is to open another, larger Perfecto’s.

“We’re ready,” says de la Rosa, “We’re just waiting for the right spot.”


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