The salsa was flowing, and so were the stories.
Like the time in 1993 when the officer dressed in drag — wig, black skirt, blouse, pumps — to bust transvestites in a prostitution sting.
“I looked like a homeless lady,” retired Garden Grove PD Sgt. Joe Gallardo recalled with a laugh.
Or the time when retired Sgt. Jack “Steppy” Stepanovich, going deep undercover, danced with his “partner” in a gay bar during a crackdown on lewd acts being committed in the establishment.
Or the time when a Garden Grove officer had to shoot a monkey out of a tree. The owner authorized the fatal hit because his monkey had gotten violent.
For years now, on the first Thursday of every month, GGPD retirees have been getting together for lunch to hang out, swap stories and scarf down Mexican food at a beloved joint that has been a favorite haunt for area law enforcement for more than four decades.
But on Sunday, Aug. 16, Casa de Soto — opened in February 1973, when Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” topped the charts and Nixon still was in the White House — closed its doors, ending an era for cops in Garden Grove and surrounding agencies.
The restaurant — known as CDS by regulars — has been sold, owner Carol de Soto said.
Which leaves the sizable contingent of GGPD retirees who have been getting together there monthly in the back room of the restaurant to search for a new lunch spot.
Venues in the running for the 11:30 a.m. monthly lunches for retired officers and professional staff include Carolina’s Italian Restaurant in Garden Grove, the Wyndham Hotel in Garden Grove, Casa Garcia in Anaheim, Coco’s on Harbor Boulevard and Chapman Avenue, and The Hacienda in Santa Ana.
What’s certain is the meetings will continue — part of a broader effort by GGPD retirees to stay connected.
Three ex-employees — Nancy McFaul, a retired records manager who spent 25 years as a crime analyst; retired Sgt. Joe Gallardo; and retired Sgt. Elaine Noce, now an investigator with the Orange County District Attorney’s office — are monthly lunch regulars who set up a website in 2008 for retirees.
“We wanted to make sure the younger generation knows the history of our department,” Gallardo said as he ate his lunch at CDS on Aug. 6 — the last meeting for the retirees at the storied venue. “We want them to know our stories.”
McFaul says the monthly get-togethers aren’t really “meetings.” Said the former crime analyst: “They are chances for us to get together and shoot the breeze.”
McFaul and Noce have become close friends and now travel the world together.
In addition to the monthly lunches and the web site, McFaul also was instrumental in overseeing an ambitious and time-consuming project: publishing the GGPD’s first Commemorative Book, in 2009.
The thick tome is packed with vintage pictures and stories dating back to the agency’s inception on June 30, 1957.
Officer Ed Robertson, who nabbed a suspected drunk driver, made the GGPD’s first arrest.
The first call for service was for a possible burglary in progress, but it turned out to be nothing.
Chief Reece Ballard’s salary was $700 per month, and patrol officers made $427 per month.
It’s unclear how much money Garden Grove and other area cops have spent at Casa de Soto over the years, but it may rival the Gross National Product of certain countries.
“It’s sad to see it go,” said retired Corp. Mike Feher, now a master reserve officer with the GGPD assigned to the resort area.
Feher, who retired in 2010, said he and fellow officers appreciated being able to chat amongst themselves in relative privacy in a room in the back of the restaurant.
“And they would feed us at the last minute on our shifts, even if they were just about to close,” Feher said.
Speaking of the food, the menu at CDS didn’t change much over the years.
From the tacos and tamales to the corn chips, to the salad dressings and margarita mix — all were prepared on site and remained consistent over the years. Many of the restaurant’s staff had been with the restaurant for two to three decades.
To mark their final get-together at CDS on Aug. 6, owner De Soto surprised the GGPD retirees with a monstrous pastry.
After several photos and warm goodbyes, the attendees headed out — but not without promising to see each other at their next get-together on Sept. 3.
Wherever the venue may be.
“This group — everyone sticks together,” McFaul said.