LOS TACOS NO. 1
“BE TRUE TO YOURSELF, TRUE TO YOUR PARTNERS, EVERYTHING ON THE TABLE, SPEAK CLEARLY, DON’T HOLD BACK ON ANYTHING”
If ever you find yourself near Chelsea Market in New York City, you’d do yourself well to get to Los Tacos No. 1. Make it a priority. A simple, quality, and inexpensive menu of fresh Northern Mexico inspired creations, Los Tacos won’t disappoint.
You might try the adobada or the pollo or the carne asada. Or all three. You might try the nopal. Wouldn’t hurt to try a corn and a flour tortilla. If you’re feeling adventurous, order one of the unlisted menu offerings, like The Vampiro tostada.
I sat down with Christian and Kyle, two of the three owners and creators of the taquería, to discuss their vision and adventures along the way to what has been a big success. Drying off hands and wiping tears from eyes post-onion chopping, Christian and Kyle emerged from the kitchen ready to share.
They told stories fondly and in tandem about the scramble of being first-time restauranteurs, about adapting the ideal recipe from back home, about their love for their Southern California and Tijuana culture and their eagerness to spread it to the East Coast.
They’re sharing an authentic recipe, a vital and tasty component of their roots. And they’re proud of what they’re serving.
Family recipe competitions
Keeping it real
I. BREAKING AWAY
THE JALEPEÑO: You knew each other before starting the business, yes?
CHRISTIAN PINEDA: I met Tyler (the third founder) in architecture school in San Diego. That’s where I was born, but I was raised in Tijuana. Tyler and Kyle grew up together in Brawley, California, which is against the border of Mexicali, the city next to Tijuana. I met Tyler at school, where we hit it off. Summers we’d go down to Tijuana to party and eat.
KYLE CAMERON: We all went to Europe together in 2008. That’s where we all really hit it off.
CP: We moved out here when we graduated in 2010. Kyle and I had been working for architects in California, and we came here to work for the big firms. We were here looking for jobs, internships. We did that for a couple years. Seven years of architecture experience in California didn’t mean anything here. We ended up with solid jobs, but Tyler and I from the get-go have been interested in development, being our own client. All we needed was the capital.
We didn’t want to be punching out construction documents for a big firm forever.
Since we moved to New York, we always talked about how there were no good tacos here.
We wanted to shift lanes and try our own thing, but we’d never been in the restaurant industry. It’s almost like we were forced into it. People out here didn’t know better [about authentic Northern Mexican food].
We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just trying to bring a product that exists down there over here. Simple as that. So we started generating the concept.
KC: It took about two years from starting to work on the concept to when we opened.
CP: We were developing the business plan, going out to California to get the funding, trying to get the recipe right, trying to find the right distributors. There wasn’t any product that compared to what we were used to down in the North of Mexico.
There are a lot of Mexicans here in the city, but a lot of them are from the south, which uses a different style of tortilla. Ours is California style in a sense. In LA you have that, but it’s still not that street style taquería like you’d find in Tijuana.
THE J: People can be particular about their Mexican food in California. You’ll be happy to know I’ve had San Diego visitors applaud your work.
CP: [Laughs] That’s good to hear. That’s all we were trying to do – bring something out here that no one had yet.
As architects we wanted to impact lives and bring together neighborhoods and come up with great things for people. Now we’re doing the same thing.
THE J: What has it been like creating a business with your close friends? You must have some good stories from when you were starting out.
CP: It’s been so much fun. We all lived together at the beginning in a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village. So, you can imagine. I don’t know how we survived. We’d go back to California to learn about the adobada. Bringing out consulting guys. Our tortilla guy from San Diego had never been to New York City. He was crashing in our bedroom.
KC: We opened up within two weeks of this location being turned over to us.
THE J: That must have been hectic.
CP: We opened up on the first day to a line of people. You can imagine the stress.
We were nervous. We’d never done that in our lives.
We were here at six in the morning doing the prep work. We didn’t know what time to open. The first two weeks were hell. We’d serve the tacos all day, be there ‘til nine at night. Then have to clean the hoods, the grills, the mats, ‘til four in the morning. Then wake up and do that again.
But it’s a beautiful experience. Now we can educate our staff, we have a smooth system, and three managers now. It’s beautiful to see. We’ve developed a good reputation.
THE J: As you grow, is that a system you’ll replicate?
CP: That’s the plan. We’ll use this location (Chelsea Market) as our university. We’ll train all of our new staff here. Everyone will be here, getting this one up and running, get some new staff in here, get them into the mix. Eventually we’ll send up some new guys and vets to our new locations.
THE J: Will the menu change at all?
CP: In addition to our current menu, we’ll be doing a burrito cart at both locations. Breakfast burritos. It’ll be its own brand, its own thing.
KC: Different concept.
CP: Seven to Ten AM. California and Tijuana style burritos. Chorizo. Breakfast burritos with bacon and potato.
It’s nice to bring something new to the table. And nicer that people like it.
THE J: That must be encouraging. Every time I’ve been here there’s been quite a line. Was that motivating, bringing this authentic cultural item to a new city?
KC: People needed to be educated. People often don’t know the difference between a hard or soft taco, a tostada, a quesadilla, mula.
CP: It’s nice to bring that education to New York City. Especially in a place like Chelsea Market where we’re educating a lot of locals and tourists.
THE J: Has your architecture experience applied to your restaurant endeavors?
CP: As architects we wanted to impact lives and bring together neighborhoods and come up with great things for people. Now we’re doing the same thing.
We serve 600 to 1000 people a day. It’s cool hearing people respond positively. I check my Yelp every day and it’s nice to see all that nice feedback.
THE J: What about the design?
CP: We all designed and built this space. Efficient, smart, creative. Raw materials, what we could find. Then we opened up and started selling. We wanted to keep it classy and timeless. If you look at our stand, we have no logo. Just our name.
THE J: How’d you end up in Chelsea Market?
KC: We looked for months. Through a friend we met someone in the management company here. They said they wanted a taco shop, and our friend said ‘I’ve got the guys for you!’ It worked out pretty good.
CP: It was one of my best friends form Tijuana. He’s a cook, and he had a girlfriend who’s a food coordinator in that industry. Next day they said “Sign here.”
THE J: Is your menu built around a family recipe?
CP: The Salsa Ranchera we use is my mom’s recipe. The style of the marinade in the meats is from a cook in Mexicali that these guys know from Brawley, which is known for their great marinade in carne asada.
THE J: That must be exciting for your families and friends back home.
CP: You can imagine. You open a Mexican restaurant out here with a Mexican family, everyone wanted to put in. We had a lot of competitions.
KC: At our first cook-off, there were a bunch of our family friends who brought their own salsas. Everyone wanted to contribute.
CP: We tried them all. Bring it on. The best one would win. We did a lot of our tryouts at our apartment on this little stove. I want to frame that stove. That’s where we’d test all the recipes. We smoked that place out so many times.
THE J: How much time did you spend perfecting the recipe?
CP: We went to Tijuana for two months, hit up all of our local favorite taquerías. They were really open to educate us. Then we went to Brawley for a month and a half to develop the marinades. We had cookouts for the town.
KC: We were able to work at a real kitchen there. Tyler, our partner, his mom has a restaurant in Brawley. The chef there showed us a lot.
CP: We had an industrial kitchen to use out there. And a lot of people helping us. That was good practice.
THE J: Have your family and friends come out to see what you’ve built?
KC: They have. They come out for our parties.
CP: We made sure they didn’t come within the first month we opened.
THE J: What were you unprepared for?
KC: It was all a crash course, man.
CP: Seeing the huge line of people waiting.
THE J: And they’re expecting to be fed.
CP: Right. And we want to deliver the perfect product. That’s our attitude. A lot of the inspiration behind this project is In-N-Out Burger. They‘re all about their staff’s attitude, their product, their timeless design.
They make a few things perfectly.
THE J: And like In-N-Out, your stuff is inexpensive, considering how great it is.
CP: It’s tough being in the Market, for rent, only having one location. And we use all Mexican product, except for our meats. Our food margins aren’t where they need to be, but it’s a matter of time.
Right now we’re concentrated on getting the correct product out there. Even if it costs more. We’ll go with authentic cilantro rather than for cilantro that doesn’t even smell like cilantro but is half the price.
THE J: All about the quality product. Any other plans for expansion?
CP: We want to have a few little taquerías up and running for now. Hopefully someday buy a building in Brooklyn, build a tortilla factory, get our tortillas into Costco, our salsa into Whole Foods. Build a little empire in New York City. Then ask ‘What cities next?’ We don’t know the scale of this thing yet.
THE J: Any advice for new entrepreneurs?
CP: It’s always been about having a positive mentality. Knowing that everyone needs to get creative. It’s not the old traditional way where you graduate, go to work, make a living, get married, have kids, retire. No.
Everyone needs to get creative in their own way and develop whatever their idea is.
THE J: Will you expand on that, the need for creativity?
CP: Our background is in design, all three of us, architecture, construction, film.
Creativity was the whole backbone from coming up with the idea to now. Everything from designing the venue to creating our brand and our identity. We used plywood because we had so little money to build the shop. From the research all the way to the menu we had to get creative.
We always try to change our constraints into opportunities. We were architects trying to make it in New York and it wasn’t working out.
In a creative way we were able to transform and change our careers. I never would have imagined I’d own a taquería. The job search wasn’t working out. From that desperation, the creativity came into play.
You have to get creative for survival.
There was also creativity in the research process. We new we could fill a void.
A big part of our success is in solving problems. You can come up with as many ideas as you want, but you need to bring them to reality.
THE J: Great attitude.
CP: The major thing is being happy with it. You have to be happy to wake up every morning and be sure that’s what you want to do. Happy in every single sense, and stay positive.
Be true to yourself, true to your partners, everything on the table, speak clearly, don’t hold back on anything.
Keep it real. Keep it real.