Chef Chat

Honoring the Taco the El Topo Way

Blow torches in hand, the guys of El Topo Truck have mastered the hand-pressed tortilla-into-taco art in under one minute. Their personal best record is 180 from tortilla-to-plate in under two hours.

Since February of this year, Mike Serva and Tony Luhrman have operated a not-so-typical food truck that slings Mexican soul food made the only way they know how, with lots of soul and lots of love. In 2008 Luhrman, who used to call San Antonio home, hooked up with Serva, who was living and cooking professionally in Marfa at the time, to talk about food, more specifically, Mexican food. The two had one thing in common: a deep passion and respect for cooking food the right way, the way that honors the blood, sweat and tears of every hand that touches every ingredient and every animal sacrificed on its journey to the plate. Their ethos reads: "We cook with the utmost respect for tradition and to bring honor and attention to those traditions." It's not just a tag line; it's the El Topo way of life.

Over time, the chefs have created their own lardering system, whereby sauces, fat, stocks — the byproducts of anything they create — get labeled and stored away for tomorrow's recipes, both tried and unknown. From curing the bacon to rendering the lard, they say it's "the only way we can call the food ours." The menu is by no means conventional or traditional Mexican fare. They use ingredients that are authentic to the recipe instead of cheaper, more easily processed, canned or preserved alternatives. The barbacoa taco ($6) is prime brisket barbacoa, sichuan peppercorn, shallots and cilantro presented in a hand-pressed tortilla. Another favorite on the menu is the crispy pork belly bao pastor ($7), which is made with pickled pineapple, adobo, Berkshire pork belly and smashed peanut sauce, all tucked inside of a soft Chinatown lotus bun.

There's ever only a few minutes to engage with a customer when he walks up to the window and orders. They spend this time re-educating the diner about process and ingredients, which helps the diner appreciate the food that much more. The reality is "we're two white guys who consider themselves Mexican food nerds because we read, travel, test, taste and repeat until we get it right," said Serva. They may not look like two abuelitas, but they want you to feel like you were hugged by grandmas the moment your taste buds register and flavor memories are triggered in your brain when you put that al pastor taco braised with adobo sauce in your mouth.

These days, cultural appropriation in food is a hot topic. Bon Appétit was schooled when it suggested the rules of engagement of pho in a not so authentic way. Shortly after, Bon Appétit issued a follow-up apology, pulled the plug on the video and committed to learning from its mistakes. In Houston, "we've noticed that Mexican food, especially the taco, has not been treated fairly," said Serva. "Just because you slap some meat on a tortilla doesn't mean it's a taco. People expect to find a good taco for $2 at the truck with the half-peeled-off or sun-faded signage, where the onion is chopped in a processor and the cilantro is sadder than a Meryl Streep movie," he added. Sometimes, that's okay. Sometimes, you just want something to soak up the end-of-the-night booze in your belly; but as far as El Topo is concerned, it just isn't how the guys choose to honor the taco. 

For the two entrepreneurs, the biggest challenges are "having faith in what we do, adjusting to the market, and understanding the ins and outs of the industry," said Luhrman. Both Serva and Luhrman seem to be real scrappy guys. Serva said that one of the things that gets him going every day when he finds himself sitting in traffic is to remember that he's sitting in traffic along with a bunch of people who are hustling to make that dollar, just like he is. "Let's go get it, bitches; we're all in this together!" he says to himself.  There is a communal spirit in the Houston culinary scene. The industry does business in-house, with each other, for each other, and it's inspiring. "From Pappadeaux to the mom-and-pop shops, you can see the culture of buying local is alive and kicking here [in Houston]," added Serva.

The guys are launching a Kickstarter campaign to increase the reach of a couple of their sauces. They wanted people to be able to cook with homemade ingredients in their own homes. Walking down the aisles of H-E-B or even Fiesta, one would be hard-pressed to find a real home-cooked product. "To be able to communicate our passion to people on a larger scale, making these sauces more accessible and readily available for them to cook with versus having them drive out to find us on the truck is the goal," said Luhrman. The adobo sauce and the cajeta cream are very special to El Topo. The adobo is made from reconstituting dried chile peppers, grinding them down and cooking them with onions, garlic and spices. The cajeta is a creamy caramel made from goat's milk, which they are in talks about sourcing from the Marfa Maid goat farm. Also in the works are a plantain miso paste and a Mexican Laguna sea salt.

They have talked about a brick-and-mortar and although it may be in their future, it is not a major priority right now for either of them. When asked about how life was going, Serva compared it to the Beatles during their Liverpool years, playing in strip clubs for close to nothing, or Bob Dylan, back in the days when he played at the Gaslight Cafe. Not to imply that they are on the same rockstar planes as the Beatles or Dylan, but at one point the Beatles were just an English rock band, and Dylan was a bohemian poet with a guitar. It's been a hard-fought first year in business, but they feel like they are on the brink of something brilliant and life-changing.

Can a balance be reached between the cultivation of love of food and a cultivation of commerce? Luhrman and Serva struggle with this question daily. The effects of feeding good food to people are real and measurable. They buy fresh, quality produce, seafood and meats. These choices make their prices higher. The realization is that at the end of the day, "We still have to pay our bills, wake up and make our beds and take care of our families is why we do what we do," said Serva. Ultimately, they both feel that the journey is greater than the destination.

Follow El Topo Truck on social media to find out about special events. Currently the schedule is: Wednesdays at the Farmer's Market, 901 Bagby, between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Thursdays at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney, between 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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Cuc Lam is a freelance food writer for the Houston Press and local pop-up chef. She enjoys teaching cooking classes and hosting dinner parties when she is not writing.