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Lunch with Ernesto Portillo at La Costa Brava, 3541 S. 12th Avenue

La Costa Brava has the best cabrilla, the best fish soup and shrimp ranchero I have had in this town. I am not sure how long ago I discovered it. Actually, I did not actually discover it. I was led there by my long time friend and compadre Ernesto Portillo Sr. who was for several decades the towering voice of Tucson’s Spanish radio. His story is also the story of Tucson radio from the mid-1950s.

Neto is a Chihuahuense, born in Parral. When he was a youth, his family moved to Juarez. His[slickr-flickr set=”Neto” delay=”2″] brother-in-law, who Ernesto says was one of the old-time broadcasters

]in Juarez, asked him if he might like to learn about radio. He got his training outside a radio control room, using a salt shaker instead of a microphone.

Neto qualified for his broadcaster license in 1951 at the ripeold age of 17 after taking examinations in Mexico City. He was given a provisional license only because he was underage. His official papers were issue when he turned 18.

Ernesto worked in Juarez radio for three years, figuring — correctly as it turned out — that he would either go to Mexico City or the United States to further his career. Spanish-language radio started in Tucson in 1953 with the advent of KEVT. Months later, in 1954, Neto got a call and an offer to come to Tucson. He was 20, working in radio and in father’s store in Juarez. He took the job. He stayed at KEVT until 1960 when he took a job selling life insurance. That lasted only three and a half years.

Two of his fellow radio colleagues at KEVT, Oscar Stevens and Carlos McCormick, applied for a license to operate the second Spanish-language station in Tucson, which eventually was granted. They asked Neto to be sales manager.

KXEW began broadcasting in November of 1963. After six months, they asked Neto to manage the station. After a time, the station’s management asked Ernesto to help establish a FM Spanish-language station. Years later, a group of investors, including Neto, Tucson attorney Lowell Rothchild — father of the present mayor — and Swede Johnson, a University of Arizona vice president, acquired the stations. Harry Belafonte was the principal seller.

In 1978, the group sold the FM station. It survives today as KRQ with obviously a different format. The group then sold the AM station KCEW two years later.

After three and a half decades in Tucson radio, Ernesto still was not finished. Neto joined the well-known restaurateur Diego Valenzuela of Gordo’s Mexican Restaurant, whose TV commercials were ubiquitous — “If you really like chimichangas, if you REALLY REALLY like chimichangas — to form another investor group. This one included Macario Saldate, a retired UA professor and currently a member of the Arizona Legislature, and Raul Grijalva, formerly a Pima County supervisor and now a U.S. congressman. This was the start of KQTL, which began broadcasting in October 1985.

This group sold KQTL in 2000 to a company with a chain of stations.

The radio business, like most media enterprises, has changed. Sharp decreases in  advertising revenue has led to consolidation of radio companies. “Two or three companies own about 98 percent of the stations,” said Neto. “It’s a different world. Local ownership, group ownership representing your community is a thing of the past.. It’s big business now.”

The Costa Brava is not a big business. It remains a sort of sideline for the wholesale seafood business, which was founded by Levi Rodriquez. He was a shrewd businessman, developing relationships with fishermen up and down the Baja Peninsula and the Sonora and Sinaloa coasts. At one time, he had a couple of store-fronts. Levi died a few years ago. His sons run the operation today.

Gloria Hugues, Levi’s daughter-in-law, has managed the restaurant for decades. She is the hero of the kitchen.

The restaurant stands out in at least one other respect — its décor. It includes some amazing Seri carvings, nautical paintings and prints, lots of parrots, nets, an enormous pocket-watch clock and tillers. At one end is a huge stuffed marlin caught by Nick Paulos of the now extinct Paulos Restaurant and a marvelous, hand-carved bow sprit at the front of a divider.

I invited the well-known auto dealer Jim Click to join me for camarones rancheros. Levi and Gloria went all out and brought out an enormous skillet. The shrimp was by far more than we could eat. Click, who will be known as one of the most generous men this town has ever known, picked up the pan and served all the other patrons in the restaurant.

It’s that kind of place.