BRIDGEPORT — Gabe Solis is a full-time restaurateur. On the side, he hunts for treasure.
In between delivering tacos and helping his sister run Taco Erendira, the 60-year-old businessman searches for unusual items from all over the world to line the walls and shelves of his restaurant.
You might call him Bridgeport's Indiana Jones.
In the window of the Mexican mainstay at 3207 S. Halsted St., you'll find an assortment of odd items — everything from foreign busts of unnamed men to ancient gadgets to yard art fashioned from rusty scrap metal.
You'll also find a "FOR SALE" sign. Yes, it's all up for grabs.
It's a hobby spawned about a decade ago when someone invited Solis to a neighborhood flea market along Ashland Avenue.
Solis showed up and poked around, scrounging through items found in boxes salvaged from abandoned storage lockers. He eventually found a piece of Americana that would send him on a lifelong search for weird doodads.
"All it took was finding that one special piece," Solis said, "and I was hooked."
It began with a bull.
Today, after years of collecting and selling found items, Solis would classify the bull — fashioned from diamond plate and nails — as "yard art."
The unusual creature cost Solis $1.
But from the moment he left the market with the bull, he had a new mission: Find cool stuff.
Like a giant Louisville Slugger baseball bat.
When Solis saw the bat, he had to buy it.
If nothing else, the item would add more character to his collection. And if no one bought the bat? On the South Side, just a few blocks from U.S. Cellular Field, the piece is good for a joke every now and again.
Solis recently ran into a buddy who works at the ballpark. The taco boss asked him to deliver a message to White Sox management.
“Tell the boss I finally found a bat his team could use and maybe start hitting,” Solis said, laughing.
Other items are simply fun to look at.
Behind the counter, beyond Solis' prized cash registers (every one in working condition), you'll find funhouse figurines like these:
Where they came from is a mystery.
"I don't know who they are," Solis said, "but I made up a story."
Though most people might guess the woman is married to one of the men, Solis said, the truth is this: The men are married.
On each of their left hands is a tiny wedding band.
Near the back of the store, there's the bust of a dude with a wild mustache carved from a solid block of wood.
Most of the things Solis buys from flea markets and storage lockers are pieces he would put in his own house.
“In my case at home," Solis said, "the wife has to like them in order for them to come into the house.”
If his wife doesn’t approve, the thingamabob goes to one of two places: The restaurant or the basement.
Some of the items that made it into the restaurant include ancient masks from Asia, wooden figures from Africa, an Aztec calendar from Mexico — and this horse saddle made from wood, metal and horseshoes from Out There:
The shop carries many items customers might consider for nothing more than their utility: Coat racks, sewing machines, refrigerators, wine racks, tables and chairs.
But you might even stroll into Taco Erendira to ponder some of the paintings and prints hanging from the walls.
On one wall hangs a valuable Flinstones print signed by the cartoon's creators, Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, appraised online at more than $1,000.
A Mexico native, Solis moved to Bridgeport with his family when he was 7. His father opened Taco Erendira in 1967 and handed it to his son and daughter in 1974.
The shop has had many homes in the neighborhood, moving from one storefront to another along 35th Street until the family settled into its Halsted home 10 years ago.
Though Solis has items in every corner of the restaurant, he spends most of his time focused on the taco business — his family's lifeline for more than four decades.
Solis is proud of his family's history. That much is clear when you consider the one item he will not sell: The last bicycle his grandfather rode in Mexico.
How much would it cost to do some shopping after a taco dinner? All customers have to do is talk to Solis about a price.
The last item Solis sold was a water pump clock built with parts pulled from a classic Chevy.
The man who bought the clock visited the restaurant for tacos. On his way out, the water pump clock caught his eye. He was able to name the make and model of the car the pump belonged to, Solis said.
“Is that water pump for sale?”
“Absolutely,” Solis remembers saying.
The man threw out a price: Thirty bucks.
In this realm of the cool and unusual, it's not about the money.
"It's like a treasure hunt," Solis said. "If I can pass it on, it gives me the opportunity to go out and find more."
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