SF taqueros mull over handing out thousands of tacos

In a neighborhood full of Mexican cuisine, with tacos and burritos sold on every corner, new business owners Jose Mendoza and Pepe Valadez must have caused a stir with their entry into the Mission District food scene.

By Thursday afternoon, the news was out — free tacos could be found over Labor Day weekend at El Rey Taquiza Artesanal, a new taqueria on Mission between 20th and 21st streets.

“Never in our life did we expect to have such an introduction, you know, to the city, to the Mission,” Mendoza, 29, said Tuesday. His team announced the grand opening for Friday, and Thursday is expected to be more of a soft open with friends and family.

But the lines started to form and people kept coming all weekend.

“We had been practicing for a few days, but it’s very different to make tacos for us, for about 15 people, as opposed to hundreds of people,” Mendoza said.

He and Valadez estimated they handed out about 1,200 free tacos a day on Thursday and Friday when they had a free two-taco-per-person deal that was drawing swarms.

On Saturday, they started limiting customers to one free taco each.

As inevitable problems arose, new business owners had to be quick and make further adjustments.

On Thursday, the Internet went down for eight minutes. Mendoza remembers being in the kitchen and realizing that the queue was moving but no orders were coming.

He went to check what was going on, and suddenly a dozen commands came out at the same time. A scene vaguely reminiscent of the online ordering fiasco in the bear — in which the computer suddenly spits out dozens of commands — broke out.

At 12:24 p.m. Friday, the line was out the door. Photo by Lydia Chavez

“It could have been anywhere between maybe 80 tacos, 100 total tacos, and with more people in line and more people ordering,” Mendoza said.

Valadez said it was a stressful time, but he came out from behind the counter to offer eagerly waiting customers aguas frescoes, margaritasand palomas on the House.

“We gave it with joy, because we understood that it was our part,” Valadez said. “We didn’t want anyone to leave unhappy. So having a drink in hand was a big help.

Ensuring their customers were satisfied and taken care of was the weekend’s ultimate goal for the couple, a former Mission High School football coach (Valadez) and his student player, Mendoza, whose family also owns Fiesta Bowls nearby.

Mendoza and Valadez were unfazed by the small number of people who flouted the rules and came back for more tacos. When a confused vegetarian walked in and realized there were few options for her, Valadez offered her a free meatless taco. She loved it and ordered more, he said.

And when there were problems, they tried to solve them head on, with a smile.

“Our kitchen is not the biggest kitchen, so we had the taqueros kind of bump into the ladies doing the Guisados. So we were throwing elbows,” Mendoza laughed as he recalled the first day in business. “But it was fun.”

Although Mendoza wants everyone to try their entire menu during opening weekend, it was too difficult to serve Guisado tacos (made with meats simmered in a stew) sit alongside street tacos. So on Friday, they launched their regular schedule earlier than expected: Guisado tacos during the day and street tacos at night.

“I think by being honest and direct with people, they’re going to see who we are,” Valadez said.

Some customers had to wait a long time and ingredients ran out at a few inconvenient times, causing the team to scramble to offer replacements to customers.

Understandably, the team also lacked energy on Monday: Mendoza said he and his staff arrived as early as 7:30 a.m. and stayed well past the 11 p.m. closing time. Four days and thousands of tacos after opening, despite the help of friends and family helping to get the plates to the tables, the El Rey team decided to take their first vacation on the day of the labor Day.

On Tuesday, they were back, greeting new and familiar customers and discussing their plans for their fledgling salsa bar and the “crazy tacos and quesadillas” they plan to introduce.

And the first reviews have fallen: Already, El Rey Taquiza Artesanal has four and a half stars on Yelp, and 4.8 stars on Google.

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