Growing up, Julio Ortiz never thought of himself as a chef.
But he did have an affinity for sampling the street fare in Mexico City. Specifically, the ever-popular al pastor taco.
So, when Ortiz decided to open his own taco truck, Tacos Izcalli, in Rexburg in 2004, it was an easy decision to showcase the al pastor. Today, it’s his best-selling menu item.
“It’s marinated spicy pork with fresh pineapple,” Ortiz said. “I started to make it because where I come from, that’s one of the most popular dishes on the street.”
In addition to tacos with various kinds of meat, Tacos Izcalli offers burritos, quesadillas, tortas, a Mexican sandwich, as well as huarache, a fried Mexican dough with meat, vegetables and salsa on top.
Ortiz moved to Idaho in 1995 to connect with family. At first, he worked in the kitchen at Applebee’s in Idaho Falls. But soon he wanted more freedom.
“I like being my own boss, (having) my own hours,” he said. “Plus, I like meeting new people from different parts of the state and the country.”
After opening in Rexburg, Tacos Izcalli became a popular lunch spot for Brigham Young University-Idaho students, Ortiz said. But city zoning laws forced him to keep moving the truck every six months, making it difficult for customers to find the business.
In December 2012, Ortiz decided to move to Idaho Falls’ He set up shop on the corner of Broadway and south Utah Avenue.
During the last 18 months, Ortiz worked to build a new customer base and succeeded in cultivating a group of regulars. Selling tacos from a truck remains a tough business, though.
Ortiz runs a one-man operation, working 54 hours a week. He said he averages $250 per day in sales.
Still the jovial 37-year-old enjoys what he’s doing, especially interacting with his customers.
“I like to joke with them and get to know them,” Ortiz said. “I believe it’s more about making a friendship with your customers. It’s not about making money, it’s about making new friends each day. And that has worked pretty well.”
Among his regulars are Jacob Gonzalez, 48, and his son, Diego, 19. They travel from Blackfoot two to three times a week for the al pastor tortas.
Gonzalez, who is from Guanajuato — the same region of Mexico where Mexico City is located — said Tacos Izcalli reminds him of home.
“This guy makes real good food,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of people come here to eat, not just Hispanics. I recommend it.”
One issue Ortiz has faced is dealing with the stigma sometimes associated with operating a food truck. Some potential customers told him they were wary of eating food prepared in a truck. They worried about the cleanliness of the area where the food is prepared.
“Then they come here and try the food,” Ortiz said. “They change their minds.”
Recently, a much larger, brighter food truck moved in next to Tacos Izcalli: Sweeto Burrito. The American-Mexican food truck has gained popularity in the last year, expanding out of Idaho Falls and around the country.
But Ortiz wasn’t worried.
Sweeto Burrito founder and CEO Jon Pierre Francia came by Tacos Izcalli beforehand and talked with Ortiz about locating next door. Francia told Ortiz the businesses could help each other.
“Food has gravity,” Francia said. “The more food in one spot, the more people come to it. Being next to a little taco truck in Idaho Falls, we love that. We love being next to great food.”
Ortiz doesn’t consider Sweeto Burrito a competitor.
“I haven’t noticed any difference,” Ortiz said. “It hasn’t affected my business directly because he is more of a Taco Bell style. It may look like we are the same food, but we’re not. I thought the idea was good idea, having two businesses (close together).”