With Baja Roots, Emilene Carillo brings Tijuana-style eats to Phoenix | Phoenix New Times

Emilene Carillo puts down roots in Phoenix with late-night street food

Baja Roots is a woman-powered food truck bringing Tijuana-style eats and a sense of community to downtown.
Emilene Carillo serves Tijuana-style eats at her popular food truck Baja Roots.
Emilene Carillo serves Tijuana-style eats at her popular food truck Baja Roots. Lauren Topor/Good Karma Photo
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To understand Phoenix food truck Baja Roots, you need to know Emilene Carillo.

Carillo was born and raised in San Diego and throughout her childhood she spent summers with her grandparents in Tijuana, Mexico. During those visits, she was immersed in the street food culture and encouraged to “give everything a try” by her family.

Carillo credits her grandparents for her capacious palate and her father, who she says would “always run out to his grill,” for her interest in cooking. Now, Carillo runs the late-night Tijuana-style food truck Baja Roots. 

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Carillo bought her food truck just weeks before the pandemic hit. But takeout and to-go kits kept Baja Roots afloat.
Lauren Topor/Good Karma Photo
The truck is a concept Carillo has been building on for close to a decade, she says. Carillo has a professional background in social work and describes her experience as a “launching pad” for her food truck.

During her time at Sunshine Residential Homes, a supervised safe living space for at-risk youth in Glendale, Carillo funded and led a farm-to-table cooking program. Thinking of food as “a bridge to connect people from all social aspects,” she used this platform to educate kids about the basics of growing fruits and vegetables and how to make a home-cooked meal.

After her departure, Carillo found herself at a crossroads. Should she attend culinary school or go all in for the “hands-on experience” that a real kitchen offers? Carillo chose the latter.

So, she rolled up her sleeves and clocked in at 1130 The Restaurant, a now-shuttered steakhouse at Arizona Center, and also worked at two other restaurants in the same group.

“I just jumped in and allowed myself to learn through experience,” she recalls.

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Baja Roots dishes out Tijuana-style eats including tacos, burritos and quesadillas to late-night crowds from its post at the Cobra Arcade Bar lot in downtown Phoenix.
Lauren Topor/Good Karma Photo

Putting down roots

In the late 2010s, Carillo made the leap and began doing her own pop-ups at Cobra Arcade Bar.

“I started on the patio with a five-foot table and a 36-inch grill,” she says.

Carillo quickly expanded to a larger setup, which included more grills, tables and a large tent, to feed her growing customer base.

“We kept selling out night after night,” she recalls.

Knowing she needed to ramp up production, Carillo purchased her food truck in spring 2020. Unfortunately, that was just weeks before the pandemic plunged the culinary industry into a panic.

“I had just made the biggest purchase of my life,” Carillo says.

Despite the uncertainty, Carillo made it work. She relied on delivery orders and offered her signature spicy birria ramen as a to-go kit. Then, her ability to park her food truck outside became essential.

“Cobra gave me the opportunity to bring the truck back out,” she says.

Over the lockdown, DJs streamed their sets from inside the arcade bar while Carillo used the parking lot to dish out Baja Roots delivery orders. Ultimately, the growing online community became a real-life fanbase.

“It definitely helped us to stay afloat,” she says. “We made a great community out there that continues to follow us.”
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Carrilo's version of tacos dorados is made with birria and is served with a flavorful cup consomé, salsas and limes.
Lauren Topor/Good Karma Photo
At Baja Roots, Carillo notes that she’s met customers who have traveled to Phoenix from as far as New Orleans, New York and Canada.

“People tell me that my cuisine reminds them of going back home to Mexico or their mom’s cooking,” she says.

For Carillo, authenticity comes first. Her menu is a rebuttal to the gentrified versions of Mexican food that saturate restaurants across the Southwest — you’re not going to find sour cream anywhere near her food truck.

Choose from asada, pollo, al pastor and veggie tacos, quesadillas with or without meat, crunchy vampiros, slow roasted elote, tacos dorados or spicy birria ramen finished with cilantro, onions, radish, lime and a hit of chiltepin on your next visit. There’s also a secret menu, which showcases some of Carillo’s more complex creations — you just have to ask.

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Baja Roots serves a selection of tacos loaded with asada, pollo, al pastor or veggies plus guac, salsa and limes.
Lauren Topor/Good Karma Photo

Cultivating a culture

In addition to putting out delicious Mexican food, Carillo fosters a space for women in the culinary industry.

“I feel like a lot of women in the kitchen are overseen,” she says.

Carillo isn’t wrong. Research from the National Restaurant Association shows just one in five chefs are female.

“If you’re telling us a woman belongs in the kitchen, allow women to have a platform in the kitchen,” Carillo says. “Allow them to shine.”

Currently, Carillo and her wife Taylor Gurolla-Nava work alongside an all-female staff inside the Baja Roots food truck. But employing a team of women isn’t something she planned to do, it happened organically.

“I wanted to create a space where women feel comfortable,” she says. “They don’t have to feel judged, they don’t have to feel criticized.”

Baja Roots is a departure from what Carillo calls the “macho mentality” that is present in a lot of male-dominated kitchens where inclusivity is often an afterthought.

“I’m a masculine lesbian woman, it’s always been a difficult thing for people to give respect without being judged,” she says. “I created the food truck to create a space for me.”

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Carillo preps for late-night service. “I created the food truck to create a space for me," she says.
Lauren Topor/Good Karma Photo

Baja summer

For Carillo, summer isn’t the time for a vacation. On June 12 and 26, Baja Roots will be taking over the kitchen at Gracie’s Tax Bar with a menu of flautas, rolled tacos and her signature spicy birria ramen.

“It’s really spicy, but people enjoy that,” she says.

Carillo says she will offer a rainbow taco platter “to represent the LGBTQ community” for Pride Month.

The rainbow taco special will be similar to last year’s Pride offering: pink tacos assembled inside beet-infused corn tortillas. And just like the pink tacos, Carillo will use natural ingredients, not food dyes, to add color to her hand-pressed medley of tortillas. The rainbow taco platter will be featured on her secret menu and will be available throughout June.

And, in a push to underscore her passion for street food, Carillo has teamed up with Rob Cordero of RC Creative Co. to create a documentary film about her life as a food truck owner and chef. The duo plan to host a community screening of the documentary flick this summer. A date has yet to be announced.

Until then, late night noshers can find Carillo and her crew at Baja Roots serving street tacos and more from the Cobra Arcade Bar lot, near the intersection of Second and McKinley streets, every Thursday, Friday and Sunday from 8:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.

So when your cravings for after-hours elote and spicy birria hit, you know exactly where to go.

Baja Roots at Cobra Arcade Bar

801 N. Second St.
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