Bus stop: Valenzuela's taco empire expands with new location and menu

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Rene opened Taqueria Monterrey in 2002 and found it difficult to win over Mexican patrons, who had been burned by bad versions of Mexican food before. To get attention, he resorted to standing beside the road, shouting “Tacos! Burritos!”, reasoning that Mexicans would be driving with their windows down. His wife thought he was crazy, but for Rene, there was no shame in promoting the food be loves. He also developed a butcher business there, supplying meat to other taquerias as well has his own.

Enchiladas verdes
  • Enchiladas verdes

His cousin Roberto Morfin made a name for himself at his restaurant El Taconazo, employing a kitchen housed in a bus. By 2007, Taconazo had become a beloved landmark in Seminole Heights and a place to get some of the best Mexican food in the Tampa Bay area. When Roberto and his wife, Monica, offered to sell Rene the Taco Bus, he leapt at the chance.

Rene kept many of Roberto’s recipes but changed other aspects of the business. He immediately started operating seven days a week instead of five. He expanded the menu, offering daily specials and tastier options for vegetarians and vegans. He also nixed the name, preferring to name it as his customers knew it -- “Taco Bus” -- and trademarked the name.

Tacos with various fillings.
  • Tacos with various fillings.

In 2009, Valenzuela was ready to expand again, opening a Taqueria Monterrey near USF’s Tampa campus. With a huge salsa and condiment bar, fresh corn tortillas, and an expanded menu of house-made chorizo, pork al pastor, and other fillings, the new location brought all of the delights previously confined to his Plant City location. Local workers and students rushed in for lunch, filling the place daily. In 2010, he doubled the size of the restaurant to meet demand.

In January, Rene expanded the menu at his Taquerias, offering more seafood and mixed meat tacos. The seafood guacamole ($8.99) is excellent, especially jazzed up with some hot salsa from the bar. His new taco fillings have distinctive flavors: seafood pastor has pineapple; shrimp poblano has mild roasted peppers, while the shrimp kebab luxuriated in melted cheese with roasted onions and flecks of bacon ($2.69-$3.69 per taco). For a hearty taco, try the Chuza ($2.25), with smoked pork chop, hose made chorizo, onion, green pepper, and cheese.

He’s hired twenty new employees for his St. Pete location at 2324 Central Avenue, near Tropicana Field. He has forty more employees in Tampa and Plant City. Those reliable employees prove their worth every day, because Rene does not have to micromanage his restaurants. To the contrary, he’s found it is easier to run the business as he expands.

Instead of serving an all-Mexican clientele in Plant City, he’s introducing many people to the delights of Mexican street food all over the bay area. “I’m lucky,” Rene muses, “Some people do all the right things but the market doesn’t respond.” Whether through his hard work, smart decisions, or sheer luck, the market has certainly responded to Rene Valenzuela’s growing taco empire.

Photos: Andy Huse

Valenzuela hard at work in Taqueria Monterrey's kitchen.
  • Valenzuela hard at work in Taqueria Monterrey's kitchen.

Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, Rene Valenzuela was interested in the restaurant business. Although his heart belonged to Mexican street food, Rene was intrigued when McDonald’s announced it would open a location in his home town. It would be Mexico’s second McDonald’s in history, and the buzz in the city was palpable. Rene worked on opening day when the crowds squeezed in. He had never seen such a buzz for a restaurant before. At least until now, as his latest Taco Bus is the most anticipated restaurant in some time, and in St. Pete, that’s saying something.

Seafood guacamole
  • Seafood guacamole

Early on, Rene was keenly interested in cooking. At age 9, he sold tacos out of a cooler at the mercado after school. He was hooked from day one, “awakened” when he heard the compliments and noises of happy customers. While he dabbled in hospitality school, he ran a small taco stand. Rene catered to late-night revelers with a menu of only three items at the Centrito de la Del Valle market.

Later, Valenzuela worked in food sales and became a broker. In 1991, he came to the U.S., worked hard, and saved money. He moved to Tampa in 1994 and sold tacos out of a small trailer at various sites.

In the meantime, Rene plotted his first restaurant, Taqueria Monterrey in Plant City. Rene knew it might be easy to serve bastardized food to a broad audience, but he would not compromise. “I’m a contrarian, I bring the food I like,” he says. Valenzuela wanted to serve authentic Mexican street food.

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