In Tampa, Rene's Mexican Kitchen fulfills calling for Taco Bus founder

Chef Rene Valenzuela's passion on wheels opened nearly a month ago.

click to enlarge Chicharrón prensado, al pastor and carne asada tacos on house-made corn tortillas. - Jenna Rimensnyder
Jenna Rimensnyder
Chicharrón prensado, al pastor and carne asada tacos on house-made corn tortillas.

As restaurants continue to introduce contemporary takes on Mexican fare around town, the founder of Tampa-based Taco Bus has launched a new venture inspired by his roots. Chef Rene Valenzuela’s aptly named food truck, Rene’s Mexican Kitchen, is stationed at 108 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Seminole Heights, where a green gazebo built by local architect and friend Giancarlo Giusti shades some picnic tables crafted by Valenzuela himself.

“I want my passion to shine through every element,” said Valenzuela with a smile, adjusting his fedora. “I’m excited to get back into people knowing me for my food again.”

Although he isn’t thrilled about the location, he is eager to take the next step in his career.

“At this point in my life, I want to pursue what I’ve been destined for, which is to cook traditional, regional and authentic Mexican food. That is my specialty, my calling, and I’m very happy to bring that option to the dining scene,” he told CL.

Rene’s Mexican Kitchen opened nearly a month ago, but it’s been in the works for more than a year. A major setback occurred in March, putting Valenzuela’s life on hold for six months after a gas explosion left him severely burned and hospitalized for a month and a half. The chef has made leaps and bounds during his recovery, and he says he’s looking forward to new beginnings — and a new outlook on life.

“Something like that makes you realize your time on earth is short, and you can’t waste it,” Valenzuela said. “This is like my rebirth, departing from Taco Bus and coming out of the ashes of my burn accident.”

Using a commercial kitchen, Valenzuela’s crew not only prep items for the food truck, but they also run a catering business on the side. His team of 10, including wife Llarida and daughter Arely Wagner, do a majority of the cooking, which allows the chef to focus on menu development. He calls the recipes he’s releasing from his repertoire “culinary jewels.”

Staples on the Rene’s Mexican Kitchen lineup are tacos and burritos, featuring a range of fillings, from barbacoa and chorizo to vegan ranchero. Seasonality drives the rotating weekly specials, as they incorporate ingredients that Valenzuela imports from Mexico.

Over time, the chef hopes to bring in guest cooks — whether they’re area chefs or family members — to roll out one-of-a-kind dishes and keep the menu fresh, while remaining true to the cuisine he has studied all his life.

Wagner suggested her top picks from the food truck on CL’s recent visit: chicharrón prensado, al pastor and carne asada tacos on house-made corn tortillas. For customers who dig heat, we recommend the salsa verde as well.

“We’re not fusion, we’re not modern — we are traditional,” said Valenzuela. “A Jeep is a Jeep, a Mercedes is a Mercedes, and you have to know who you are.”

Rene’s Mexican Kitchen operates 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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