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.
48: Tacos Tijuana
Tacos Tijuana, 6710 West Thunderbird Road, Peoria
Carne asada and al pastor, done with Tijuana flair, served on tortillas prepared on-site
Al Pastor del Trompo
It’s dinnertime on a warm Friday evening in April, a week shy of Tacos Tijuana's one-year anniversary. Owner Adolfo Torres Jr. wears a big, friendly smile above his strong jawline. His shoulders are athletic, and he is quick on his feet as he rushes to deliver plates lined with carne asada and al pastor tacos to every table under the shop's
The parking lot, where the food trailer sets up shop for lunch and dinner every Tuesday through Saturday, is no different from the hundreds of other intersections scattered across the Valley’s suburban sprawl. On the northwest corner of Thunderbird and 67th Avenue, the makeshift dining room sits next to the Golden Spoke bike shop and a Sonic, while the other two corners are occupied by competing gas stations.
But even the most ordinary intersection in Phoenix can look remarkable while the sun is setting — and on this particular corner, I knew I could find tacos worth traveling west to Peoria for. I wasn't alone. The workday traffic was only just beginning to subside, and the parking lot was already jam-packed.
Carne asada and al pastor tacos on their way to hungry customers.
Left: Owner Adolfo Torres Jr. often works the window, ensuring tacos make it to their destination swiftly and with a smile. Right: Adolfo Torres is proud of the level of service, which goes beyond what most expect from a food truck.
The word is out about Tacos Tijuana's fiery orange al pastor. Thin, crisp, char-roasted slices of pork marinated for over a day in an adobo chile marinade are carved off a vertical roasting spit called a trompo that spins slowly inside the trailer. Salted and peppered carne asada sizzles on a nearby grill.
Though the foot traffic on his Peoria corner is a far cry from the throngs that crowded Boulevard Agua Caliente in Tijuana, where Adolfo Jr. first ran tacos from the family cart as a teenager with his father, Adolfo Sr., at the helm, his business here is brisk and growing.
“We want to serve the best tacos. We won’t even consider bringing the ladder down to make more money," Adolfo explains while shaving fine slices of al pastor with a large knife. He carefully slides them onto warm tortillas that were made by hand moments earlier on the opposite end of the trailer. “Some people will say that it isn’t worth having a couple extra people on payroll to make fresh tortillas,” Adolfo Jr. continues. "That’s a difference maker … that’s the product we’re offering.”
Adolfo Jr. has always loved business, and it was always his dream to start his own.
The family cart back in Tijuana was very successful. Adolfo Jr. believes that this was in no small part due to the fact that Adolfo Sr., whom he calls the “Master Taquero,” created his own recipes and stayed focused on quality, even when they expanded their business to operate in both Tijuana and in his hometown of Culiácan, the capital city of Sinaloa, Mexico.
Adolfo Sr. has been a taquero since the age of 16, when he entered the workforce in Mexico. At first, he had hopped around from cart to cart, learning the business of preparing and selling tacos. Then he began experimenting with recipes. Eventually, he became the owner of his own cart.
Today, at 65 years old, Adolfo Sr., continues to prepare his recipes here in the States, from the marinades for the meats to the salsas. “This is his baby right here,” Adolfo Jr. says, holding up a bottle of red salsa made from roasted arbol chiles. "My father’s special blend is all about getting the flavor correct, keeping the kick of heat in check. It shouldn’t burn your mouth. It should add to the experience of each taco."
Adolfo put his father on the phone, translating for him. “None of the sons know the recipe,” Adolfo Sr. says. “Someday they will know it, but not yet.”
Though as a young man Adolfo Sr. was running a successful cart of his own in Tijuana, he had other dreams. He hoped that one day he could raise his family across the border as American citizens. He made good on this goal as well, moving to Los Angeles, where Adolfo Jr. was born.
In the late '80s and early '90s, Los Angeles was in a state of upheaval. These were the times of the LA riots and the Rodney King scandal. Many recent immigrants, including Adolfo Sr., began to feel unsafe. “We need to get out of here,’” Adolfo Jr. recalls his father saying. “The streets are getting very dangerous.”
So the family moved back across the border to Tijuana, where Adolfo Jr. and his siblings were raised around the family taco cart business on the loud and colorful Boulevard Agua Caliente.
Left: Emilia Huerta carves the fully cooked portions of al pastor from the trompo. Right: Margarita Hernandez assembles carne asada and al pastor tacos.
Despite being surrounded by dozens of similar taco carts, the Torres' cart remained bustling. “We found out that it doesn’t matter, even if there is a taco cart in front of you, next to you, or all around you. You build your clientele,” Adolfo Jr. explained. "It’s the quality and the taste of the food, and, above all, the personality of the taqueria, that ultimately matters."
Adolfo Jr. and his siblings were U.S. citizens, so as high school approached, they decided that it was time to take advantage of their opportunity to earn their educations in the United States. In 2001, the family moved north again, this time to Arizona.
The family business did not come with them.
Left: Laura Talamantes works fast to keep pace with the demand for tacos during a lunch rush. Right: Tacos Tijuana's tacos al pastor are topped with cilantro, onion, and avocado salsa.
One of Adolfo Jr.’s brothers found a job doing pressure-washing, and the rest of the family followed suit. Soon they began planning a family cleaning business. "It’s part of our Mexican culture,” Adolfo Jr. explains. “We try to stick together and help one another out. So that was our mentality.”
While working and studying in Phoenix, the family began looking for tacos like the ones they used to sell back home. But they struggled to find the same authenticity, quality, and freshness. “In the back of our minds, we remembered when we used to make tacos,” Adolfo Jr. recalls, "and we thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that again?”
Adolfo Jr. attended school for accounting, but, as he put it, “life happened,” and he didn’t end up finishing his degree. It was still his professional goal to start a business of his own. “I’ve always loved business ... and tacos were always our family business. There weren't any carts like ours around, so I felt that if our dad would do it, then we should really think about getting something started.” Adolfo Sr. agreed, but only if his family agreed to take care of the business side of things.
One year in, Adolfo Jr. takes great pride not only in his father's recipes and the fresh tacos they serve, but also in the unique service they provide, from table delivery to the clearing of tables. “You don’t have to stand up,” Adolfo Jr. says. “We’ll do it for you.”
The style of service offered at Tacos Tijuana would be more commonly found in restaurants than at a food truck. "It comes from that Mexican idea of family, that any stranger is welcome in your home,” he explained of their hands-on style. “That’s what I feel we do really differently at Tacos Tijuana.”
Left: The King Churro cart parks next to Tacos Tijuana every weekend. Right: The King Churro sweets are traditional and simple, served hot by the bag for $5.
With dusk approaching, I stood under a pink and purple sky as I waited in line at the King Churro cart, which parks next to Tacos Tijuana every weekend. Ahead of me is a man named Ruben Bustamante, a retiree originally from the Sonoran city of Obregon. He has driven all the way from his home in Litchfield Park, as he often does, to stand in line for the Tijuana-style tacos and then for a bag of fresh churros. He brings the sweet fried dough home to his grandson, who enjoys them with a glass of milk.
"It’s worth the drive over," Bustamante says. “And it’s a lot closer than Tijuana.”
Our Taco Summer picks so far:
50. Taqueria Don Beto
49. Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa