Taco Summer: Cart Vendor Who Beat MIT at Robotics Now Serves Michoacan Street Foods in Phoenix
Santillan is serving a simple menu of tacos to begin, but will expand into less common dishes and those from his families roots in Michoacan, Mexico.
In the hunt for the latest trendy restaurants, our spotlight often misses neighborhoods that are home to some of the Valley's best kitchens — including those making metro Phoenix's best tacos. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be guiding you toward the Valley’s tastiest tacos, and the taquerías that serve them. Welcome to Taco Summer.
34: Ni De Aqui Ne De Alla
Taquería: Ni De Aqui Ne De Alla, parked most often at the northwest corner of 52nd Avenue and Camelback Road (Follow: @ndanda_az on Instagram for updates)
Open Since: 2017
Style: Tacos and street foods of Michoacan
“Engineering is about problem-solving,” Lorenzo Santillan says. “And cooking is about the same thing.”
It’s a warm Friday night, early in June, and Santillan, with the help of his business partner, Luis Aranda, is opening up for his second dinner service with their first taco truck, Ni De Aqui Ni De Alla.
They are parked near a small gallery in south Phoenix that’s putting on an art event. Santillan proved his engineering prowess 12 years ago, when he and his team beat MIT in an underwater robots competition. Now, he's switched to the cooking arena.
He is starting with a simple menu of carne asada, al pastor, and tripas tacos, but soon he plans to start offering a taste of the foods he grew up helping his mother prepare from her hometown of Michoacan, Mexico.
Ni De Aqui Ne De Alla translates to "neither here nor there."
Lettered with a fresh paint job in black and gold, the name of the truck is inherently political, translating to “neither here nor there.”
“I’m undocumented,” says Santillan, who has been able to live and work in the U.S. because of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a government program offering assistance to children who were transported to the U.S. at a young age, which applies to Santillan, as he arrived at only 9 months old.
“I wasn’t raised there,” Santillan says. “If I were to go back to Mexico, I wouldn’t know my country.”
Growing up, Santillan says he always had an interest in cooking and was hanging around the kitchen. He had a fascination with the ingredients and the process. He wanted to know why it was so messy, and yet why it always ended in a good meal. But as he grew older, family problems begin to keep him away from home and from the kitchen.
“As a kid, I had to make adult decisions with my mom. And we had to constantly translate for our parents,” Santillan says.
In high school, with nearly failing grades and under the threat of expulsion, he found an after-school program in Falcon Robotics that would let him be a kid again, this time with power tools.
“Robotics was very entertaining and very educational. I was given a privilege that not a lot of kids had,” Santillan says. “Building things, breaking them down. Rebuilding them again.”
“I got to do a lot of things I didn’t get to do as a kid,” and building robots was a way to stay out of trouble.
This had as much to do with his high school robotics teacher, Fredi Lajvardi, as it did with the activities. The marine science teacher led the Falcon Robotics team at Carl Hayden High School in west Phoenix, a school with a 90 percent Hispanic studentship and with magnet programs in both computer and marine sciences, to a now-famous victory in a college-level underwater robotics competition.
In 2004, Santillan, a sophomore at the time, was one of four students who shared a similar immigration status, who went up against experienced and well-funded teams from Duke and MIT with a rag-tag robot named Stinky.
The team ended up taking home the top prize in a phenomenal upset that ended up being chronicled by news outlets like Phoenix New Times and Wired, immortalized in a book and a documentary, and then made into a feature film starring George Lopez.
Two years later, Santillan enrolled at Phoenix College, and discovered cooking once again, this time through attaining an associate's degree in applied sciences and culinary arts.
“Overall, I was thinking about how I loved cooking, so I wanted to go to college and get all of the experience I could get.”
He then began working in professional kitchens and trying to get a catering business off the ground.
“We weren’t making a lot of money,” he says. “We were just trying to get the word out that we were doing high-quality food for pennies on the dollar.”
Fortunately, Santillan had help from his community. He and Aranda didn’t qualify for big loans, so the project was funded through GoFundMe and private donations.
Then Lajvardi, Santillan's high school coach, stepped in.
“Fredi is really good at that,” Santillan says. “Helping people reach their goals."
Lorenzo Santillan grew up with a passion for cooking, but problems at home kept him away from the kitchen in high school. He opted for an after school robotics class, and after graduating he sought out a degree in culinary arts.
Santillan remembers learning classical Italian and French techniques in culinary school, and how noticeably absent were the techniques he grew up with.
“My perception changed when I realized that Mexican food is underrated,” Santillan says. “It isn’t called ‘Classical Mexican,’ but they have their own trademarks, and their own styles and techniques.”
At the end of the day, Santillan says he wants to change the way that people think about Mexican food.
“Right now, we have a very basic menu, but we’ll be doing a lot more things,” Santillan says. “I want to show people that there’s a lot of complexity in our food, and that keeping it simple is what creates the complexity.”
A little over a week ago, the pair were preparing for their first service. Santillan knew he needed to get a website running, along with social media — something his high school robotics coach, Lajvardi, has been reminding him about in their frequent meetings.
“If you type in Ni De Aqui Ni De Alla, you’re not going to find anything,” Santillan says, letting out a nervous laugh.
In the week since, he hasn’t gotten his website up and running, but he has been posting photos to his Instagram page of rustic tacos de canasta, pambazos sandwiches dunked in salsa, and tacos pre-filled in large batches and steamed with oils and onions, which Santillan calls “way more hardcore street food than street tacos.”
If he can build a robot, he can build a website. But this week, he is satisfied to take a more hands-on approach, serving up damn good tacos as a first step toward building his following.
Our Taco Summer picks so far:
50. Taqueria Don Beto
49. Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
48. Tacos Tijuana
47. El Burrito Grande
46. El Horseshoe Restaurant
45. Tacos Sahuaro
44. El Pollo Correteado
42. La Fiesta
41. Taqueria Lucy
40. Tortas Ahogadas George
39. Taqueria El Chino
38. Joe's Tacos
37. Taqueria El Gallo de Lagos
36. Tacos Huicho
35. Puffy Taco Shack
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