The last time I visited with chef L.J. Wiley was in March. That's when the prodigal chef was busy hosting a pop-up dinner called "Yelapagain" with his former employees and colleagues from Yelapa, the modern Mexican restaurant Wiley helmed to critical acclaim before departing for New York City in 2011.
But Wiley hadn't returned to Houston to only serve pop-up dinners, nor to resurrect Yelapa -- which closed in October 2011, not long after Wiley left.
He'd come back to Houston to sling tacos. From a truck.
But as many mobile food unit operators will tell you, finding the perfect truck -- one that runs, one that's reliable, one that has enough room, maybe even one that has its medallions already and can go straight into service -- is half the battle.
"I turned down a truck a few days ago," Wiley told me as he served up dishes at the Yelapagain dinner that night at Kitchen Incubator. The dinner's purpose was dual-pronged: to let Houston know that Wiley was back and to test out some of the tacos he was considering for his truck's menu.
"There will be a main menu of tacos flanked by other dishes," Wiley explained. And while he still wasn't sure what those other dishes would be back in March, he's got it all sorted out now.
After taking a few of Pi Pizza Truck's shifts for practice, Taco Nuts was at Grand Prize Bar every night from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. starting last Thursday. As promised, the menu offers several tacos, but Wiley couldn't stop there.
The truck is the first I've seen to offer either chips and salsa or chips and queso (although they're not complimentary, as they'd be at a restaurant). And Taco Nuts also offers burritos and "nachos chilaquiles" like Los Huevos del Ranchero, which sees tortilla chips topped with braised brisket, red salsa, ranch-style beans, green chile queso, cilantro, ghost pepper aioli and a poached egg.
As with the burritos portion of the menu, Wiley is offering four different takes on the classic food truck dish. One contains tomatillo-braised chicken with roasted corn, crema and a mango-habanero salsa, while another is fully vegetarian. But vegetarian here doesn't mean boring: the roasted tomatoes and avocado taco also contains Fritos and a spicy lime aioli.
In one way, the food that Wiley is serving at Taco Nuts is an extension of the complex, layered, occasionally over-the-top food he made at Yelapa -- food that may have been critically acclaimed but was also divisive in the context of a broader audience.
In another, more important way, the food at Taco Nuts is a new chapter entirely. Wiley has learned from the time spent at the modern Mexican restaurant and has streamlined the dishes, fine-tuned his ingredients and ensured along the way that Taco Nuts can offer what Yelapa didn't: food that wows any audience.
Follow Taco Nuts on Twitter to find out where Wiley will be parking this week.