The city, held captive by back-to-back winter storm warnings and roads slick with ice, has not been kind to restaurants of late. Especially not the itinerant ones that operate out of borrowed white minivans, popping up at breweries with little more than a few tables, a tent and grill.
“I’m from Mexico originally – we are not meant for this,” laughs Carlos Ordaz-Nunez.
The chef behind pop-up TBT El Gallo may not be meant for sleet and snow, but he is certainly meant to be the man behind the grill who eloquently attempts to define exactly what kind of food he’s making. And more importantly, what his food is not.
“We are not hardcore traditional,” Ordaz-Nunez stresses. “This is not what my grandpa would say he grew up eating.” But TBT El Gallo’s simple menu of tacos and burritos is certainly not “fusion-y” or out-there eclectic, either.
“I hate to use the word modern, and it’s not re-imagined Mexican food,” Ordaz-Nunez says. He lands on second generation Mexican cuisine, with flavors and cooking styles that are inherently Mexican, but with flavors rearranged ever so slightly.
“We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” he says. “Maybe just rethinking how you drive.”
Ordaz-Nunez and his small but scrappy team held their first pop-up this past September at a farmers market. He admits that everyone seemed to be a little confused, intrigued by the man and his wife standing in the middle of the market with a grill and table. He did not sell out that day.
Serendipitously, around the time the chef figured out how to successfully scale his operations, the great birria boom was getting national attention. “It was like lightning in a bottle,” Ordaz-Nunez says.
“I said ‘Let’s go full in, Cali style, make it really dirty, the way I grew up with.’” El Gallo’s birria tacos are made with shredded cheese, green onions, cilantro and consommé. “My mom said ‘Mijo! Don’t put that on there,” Ordaz-Nunez laughs.
Soon, people were showing up to the twice-weekly pop-ups just for the birria, accounting for at least a third of sales. Ordaz-Nunez says they’d sell 40 to 50 pounds of the 18-hour braised beef in just under three hours.
“People really like this, but it’s such a humble dish in Mexico,” Ordaz-Nunez says. “Your mom makes birria when you are out of money – sometimes it’s made with dirt cheap goat meat or less desirable cuts of beef.”
It took a while for Ordaz-Nunez to appreciate the humble roots of so many now-lauded Mexican dishes. Like any rebellious kid bucking parameters, Ordaz-Nunez says he ran way from Mexican cuisine for years.
Born in Mexico, the chef spent his early childhood in Southern California where his parents worked as migrant farmers. They moved to Mechanicsville – where they would eventually run their own farm – when Ordaz-Nunez was 5.
He says his mother had dreams of her son becoming a lawyer, but Ordaz-Nunez couldn’t stay out of the kitchen. “I was in D.C. working in fine dining. I always wanted to be a respected, high-end chef,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was 25 or 26 that I really started falling in love with the way Mexican food is prepared.”
Only weeks away from the grand opening of his first brick and mortar, the chef still is learning how to love the food he grew up on.
With the help of his parents and his uncle and his own savings account, Ordaz-Nunez says the restaurant secured a storefront quickly this fall. He assumed after a few pop-ups he’d transition seamlessly into the space before the end of the year.
The best-laid plans – opening a restaurant is taking longer than the chef anticipated. But he feels grateful for the delay.
“It’s given me time to decide what I want to do,” Ordaz-Nunez says. “I thought we would be prim and proper and authentic, more fine-dining Mexican. As time went on, I realized I just really wanted to make food that tastes good.”
The long-as-your-arm hangover burrito tastes good even in freezing temps, paired with a Veil lager and hard-working heat lamps. The tinga de pollo taco transcends the dreary weather, transporting you to a food cart on the streets of Oaxaca. Or maybe it is better suited for the streets of L.A., inherently Mexican, but second-generation. Not your grandpa’s taco.
“I want to build a temple to Mexican food,” Ordaz-Nunez says. “Then put graffiti on it.”
Look for TBT El Gallo to open at 2118 W. Cary St. in early March. Catch it before then at pop-ups at the Veil Brewing on Feb. 24, Tabol Brewing on Feb. 26, Stone Brewing on Feb. 27 and at Vasen Brewing on Feb. 28. Follow Carlos’ journey on Instagram @tbtelgallo.