.Hidden Stories and the Best Burritos are on Keyes Street

Keyes Street’s hub of San Jose culture

Stadium Liquors at Ninth and Keyes reconnected me to various ghosts of the Keyes Street ecosystem. 

The entire length of Keyes, from First Street until Keyes turns into Story Road, is a gloriously backwater thoroughfare one must navigate on foot, over and over, to really capture the context. History pours from the cracks in the asphalt.   

Cars drive this road as if it were a freeway, so it can be dicey on foot, especially at nighttime, but on a 95-degree afternoon, the whole stretch of road feels almost like a border town, in all the right ways. A bit like McAllen, Texas, perhaps. You really feel between somewhere and somewhere else. Everything is spread out. People come and go. Everyone is bilingual. It’s dry and dusty. The street is wide and covered with decades of motor oil. Some of the businesses, like Stadium Liquors, have been around for over 50 years. And there’s always distorted Mexican music blasting from houses, trucks, bus stops or shopping carts.

These are not snubs. I love this road. It was made for industrial wasteland flaneurs like myself. And Stadium Liquors probably makes a better burrito than anywhere in downtown San Jose. Seriously. You have to be a carnivore, of course, but you can watch women chop up everything right in front of you. Bistec ranchero. Chicharron. Barbacoa. Carnitas. Sometimes even a tray of enchiladas. Simple. And 100% authentic.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On the wall at Stadium Liquors, right above the MoneyGram window in the back, just past the coffee pot, there’s a framed photo of a Mexican cowboy on horseback, a parade photo from long ago on Santa Clara Street. You can tell the shot is decades old because in the background one sees American Auto Supply at Third and Santa Clara, (where Con Azucar is now). 

American Auto Supply was a legendary outpost, a living relic of a place, and this was 30 years ago. There was a stoner dude working there—headband, mustache, long hair, and straight out of a Cheech & Chong flick—often drinking a can of Budweiser behind the counter. There was an inch layer of dust on everything. It was gorgeous. 

But I digress. That photo, at Stadium Liquors, and all it triggered—past, present and even further—hurled me into deeper dimensions of reflection. I had to walk Keyes yet again and soak in the history. 

Situated in what’s essentially the Spartan-Keyes neighborhood, aka The Land of a Thousand Tire Shops, Keyes Street is one of many nearby roads named after members of the Reed family that survived the Donner Party. Nowadays, you really get the impression this road is a frontier of sorts, a last refuge, the edge of something. Especially if you traverse it on foot over the course of several years, it really feels that way. If you keep going, you’ll get to East San Jo. Going the other direction takes you past First Street and onto Goodyear and Willow, the eastern fringes of Willow Glen. 

Some classic neighborhood bars exist on Keyes, and, just like Stadium Liquors, they have been around for over half a century. They exude a sympathy with time, throwing us back to the days before stadiums down the street were given idiotic names like CEFCU or EXCITE.

For example, the building that’s now Javi’s Keyes Club at Ninth and Keyes was Jack Roddy’s bar 50 years ago. Born in 1937, Roddy went to James Lick and became a world-renowned rodeo champion. He’s now in the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame, but decades ago he owned a few different bars, including the legendary Boots and Saddle out on Alum Rock and Jackson. 

The history of Keyes doesn’t stop with the bars, of course. Directly across the street one finds an old-school self-service car wash, likewise over 50 years old. It doesn’t look like much, but it does serious business. Still.

All along this road, scholars of ’60s gas station architecture will have a field day. Much of it remains, if you know where to look. On Keyes, there is nothing but beautifully janky history. And killer burritos. Just typing these words, I can already smell the carnitas.

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