WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Plates of food remained on the tables below fallen ceiling tiles at LaTolteca Mexican Restaurant Monday — evidence of how quickly customers fled when a devastating fire broke out Sunday evening.
Thirty-three year-old owner Carlos DeLeon walked around the building trying to make sense of it all as he waited for insurance inspectors to arrive to assess the damages so he can begin to rebuild the popular eatery off Mundy Street he opened nearly nine years ago.
Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Chief John Yuknavich said Monday the fire was determined to be accidental, probably started by a still-lit cigarette tossed near cardboard boxes at the rear of the building.
Yuknavich said the ruling was made by him, Assistant Fire Chief Danny Harkenreader and Ashley Borough Fire Chief Joe McGlynn after employees and the restaurant’s owner were interviewed.
“The employees take their break in the back in an enclosed area where boxes are thrown before being taken to a Dumpster at the end of the night,” Yuknavich said. “The fire started there and ran up the outside wall to the roof.”
Yuknavich said employees tried to douse the fire with a garden hose, but couldn’t contain it.
As he walked through restaurant in the heart of the township’s commercial district, DeLeon shook his head.
“It’s a lot of damage,” he said. “And this happens right before my busiest week.”
Cinco de Mayo — May 5 — a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride, will come and go without festivities at LaTolteca.
DeLeon said he hopes to get the place reopened within a month.
“The main thing is everybody got out and nobody was hurt,” DeLeon said. “That’s the main concern. We can put everything else back together.”
Five fire companies responded to the fire call — Wilkes-Barre Township, Plains Township, Ashley Borough, Hanover Township and Kingston.
DeLeon said a walk-in cooler was destroyed, but the other kitchen equipment was spared. He said extensive damage was done to the roof and ceiling.
Large pieces of insulation were strewn along the exterior of the building and the smell of fire was strong at the entrance. Inside, several Cinco de Mayo posters hung on the walls, alerting customers to the upcoming celebration.
An inspector from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture arrived to monitor the disposal of food.
DeLeon said about 30 people work in the restaurant. A second location — LaTolteca Express — in the Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville remains open.