The timing couldn't have been better for its arrival back then. Over the years the neighborhood has become one of the most traveled-to destinations in Detroit, known for its old-school Mexican eateries, panaderias, and mercados - with El Zocalo as one of its anchors.
More than 30 years later, the popular restaurant will close its doors for good on Sunday as the owner is planning to retire.
"We close with an absolutely heavy heart because building up a business can take a lifetime," says Cindy Cordoba-Koziol, daughter of founders Victor Hugo and Yvonne Cordoba.
Again, timing seems to be on the Cordoba's side. With growing interest to develop in the area that borders Corktown, the family-owned restaurant is listed
at $1.5 million. The 13,000-square-foot, two-story space at 3400 Bagley includes three bars, two banquet rooms, and an outdoor pavilion.
The establishment was the passion project of Victor Hugo Cordoba, an immigrant from Costa Rica, who had moved to Detroit in 1957 to pursue an engineering degree, his daughter tells us.
When he died in 2013, Yvonne and the spot's longtime crew kept the business going. Cordoba-Koziol says her mother, now 80, is ready to retire and the family's younger generation have since gone on to pursue other careers.
Originally a bank built in 194o, the building later became the Tenampa bar that at times housed a popular Spanish-language radio program hosted by Olivia Galan ("La Guerita de Oro"), according to Mexicantown historian Maria Elena Rodriguez.
After the building went on the market around 1980, the Cordoba patriarch purchased it and completely redesigned the interior, his daughter tells us. His goal, to combine his love of cooking with his background in business.
Then known as La Bagley, the community already featured a number of Mexican American-owned businesses, including the pioneering restaurants, Mexican Village and Xochimilco, and the longtime La Jalisciense Tortilla Factory.
Cordoba-Koziol tells us her father was among other entrepreneurs who envisioned that the area would one day rival commercial districts like Greektown and Frankenmuth. By the late 1980s, the neighborhood was recast as Mexicantown.
Cordoba-Koziol remembers those early days well. She was a senior at the University of Michigan at the time. Having worked her way through school in restaurants, she helped her father open El Zocalo. She was in charge of the front of the house, while he handled the kitchen.
Over the years, the restaurant has attracted national politicians, American and Mexican celebrities, and scores of Tigers fans. In recent years, the bar launched a taquileria - the city's only full-scale tequila bar featuring more than 100 varieties of the Mexican spirit.
As for the space's future, Cordoba-Koziol is optimistic that the property will get to play a part in Detroit's growing restaurant scene.
"I hope that someone will take what we've created and take it to the next level," she says.
When El Zocalo opened its doors in 1983 in southwest Detroit, the push to establish the city's Mexicantown district was well under way.