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The white brick building in Bountiful with a Spanish flair. A plate of piping hot cheese enchiladas with a made-from-scratch sauce. The smiling, mustachioed face of owner Mel Melcomian. And, of course, an order of sopapillas to finish off the meal.
Whatever happened to Casa Melinda?
The beginnings of the Mexican restaurant start thousands of miles away from Bountiful or from South of the Border. Instead, they begin with Melcomian, an Armenian born in Iran in 1928. While he was raised there, he never really stepped foot in a kitchen. It was always his mother who did the cooking. But that changed in 1954, when he came to the United States and began working at a drive-in flipping burgers in Chicago, according to his daughter Jennifer Melcomian. Later, he worked at a Greek restaurant in San Jose, Calif., and then he made his way through the world doing odd jobs: picking fruit, salting animal hides or working in a cannery.
He eventually found himself attending Utah State University to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. After years working in the field, he wanted a change. So, he and his friend Neil Schaerrer invested in a Tampico franchise in 1968. The two ran it until 1976, when health problems stopped Schaerrer from being able to be an active part of the restaurant. It was then that Malcomian decided he wanted to try out his own recipes at a restaurant.
Mel Melcomian did all the cooking when he first started Casa Melinda in March of 1977, often putting in nearly 18 hour days. Diners flocked to the location, at 3101 S. Highway 89, nearly overwhelming the waitstaff and cooks young people Malcomian eventually taught how to cook the recipes that kept people coming back.
"I think the quality of the food drew people in," Jennifer Melcomian said. "And the value of the meal you'd get a good amount of food for what you paid. We had people who would come a couple times a week."
Like most family-owned restaurants, many of the Malcomian family members worked at the restaurant. Elaine Melcomian, Mel's wife, was the hostess for years. The children cleared and waited tables. Jennifer Melcomian started as a busser, eventually moving to the kitchen and then helped manage the restaurant.
It was the first building built specifically to house a Mexican restaurant, Jennifer Melcomian said, and Mel Melcomian was proud of the fact he had separated smoking and non-smoking areas, one of the first eateries to do so.
Employees often stuck around for years, and the restaurateur would often pay half of workers' college tuition.
For the last years Mel Melcomian ran the restaurant, he closed it for lunch and only served dinner, allowing him to semi-retire. In January 1997, he sold it to new owners. They kept the same recipes for awhile, but after hands changed again, the food changed, too. Eventually, it became an entirely new restaurant, and that closed in 2006.
But diners will remember Casa Melinda's cheese enchiladas, chile rellenos, salsa and dessert sopapillas. They'll also remember the friendly owner, who was involved in the community and personally greeted folks as they dined.
"My dad prided himself on using fresh ingredients. He was Mr. No Processed Food," Jennifer Malcomian said. "And I'm sure people came to see him."