Picking up traction these days in the Texas market, Tacodeli began serving tacos rooted in the Mexican tradition in Austin in 1999. Founder and co-owner Roberto Espinosa had always loved food, but having grown up in Mexico City and traveled a great deal in Yucatán and central Mexico, Tex Mex just never did it for him. So, after apprenticing with Mexican chefs for some time and working for a few years as a beverage sales representative in Atlanta, Espinosa moved back to Austin in 1998 and started Tacodeli the following year.

Tacodeli now has 10 locations among Austin, Houston, and Dallas, and has established a cult-like fan base particularly with its salsas, the most popular being the Salsa Doña (three salsas, including Doña, are now available in select Whole Foods locations). Espinosa is open to expansion beyond the Lone Star State, but he wants to make sure the company can grow at a pace that maintains the positive culture that’s key to Tacodeli’s success. “At the end of the day, we can’t do any of this if we don’t have the right team,” Espinosa says.

Ex the Tex Mex

I was born in Mexico City and grew up there through the age of 10; that’s when I moved to the States. Mexico has such a rich culinary tapestry, with so much food from all over the world. When I moved to Austin, it was 1980 and the food landscape in the States was really different than it is today. There weren’t many cool mom and pops with specialty cuisines. We weren’t used to Tex Mex, so my family was always seeking out good Mexican food. You could find it if you looked hard enough, but it wasn’t in the conversation like it is today. My dad had planted the seed early on, saying, “One day we’ll open a Mexican restaurant to show off what we miss, what we weren’t able to find.”

The apprentice

At the end of my college career, I asked my dad if it was a good idea to open a restaurant after graduating and if he would help me. He said, “You should get some more experience.” So, he hooked me up with a buddy of his who is the HR director of Fiesta Americana Condesa down in Cancún. That’s when I had my first true experience in a professional kitchen; I was there about three and a half months.

Everything they did was made in-house. The chefs in the Yucatán have an amazing palate. Every chef that I was working for had classical training that they used as a foundation to interpret their own dishes that were local, regional food. I fell in love with cooking when I was working with these guys. Thanks to my dad and his encouragement, this experience set the tone for what I wanted to do.

On the menu

The first menu was about 13 tacos and very heavily influenced by the Yucatán. As time went on, we developed the menu to include some fun, creative items while keeping a foot in the Mexican tradition. Today, we have about 43 tacos on the menu, and a lot of them do have that creative flair that I think has given us a very distinctive profile.

Probably the most important thing that we do is source the best ingredients that we can, but we have to keep in mind we’re serving tacos. We’re not a white tablecloth restaurant serving $30 entrées. We have to find a balance where we source the best we can with a price point that is reasonable for our customers.

It’s in the salsa

Doña Berta Gonzales worked with me within a month or two of our opening. In Spanish, doña is a term of endearment and respect. After hiring my first kitchen staff, I wanted to see what their abilities were, so I basically had a contest, saying, “Whichever salsa I like best, I’ll give you $30.” I had no idea Doña’s sauce would become what it has today. She brought hers in a little sour cream container. When I opened the lid up, the color of the sauce was a really pretty green. I tasted it and was just blown away.

I’m pretty proud of our food and think it stands alone, but there are people who, I know for sure, come in just for the Doña. And the actual Doña is a family member to us. She’s like an adopted aunt to us.

Fast Casual, Story, Tacodeli