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Against All Odds, a Street Vendor and His Family Open Their First Brick and Mortar Restaurant in East Los Angeles

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]f you’ve been on the search for a taco that takes you back to those late nights in Tijuana, you know the nights where you’d whistle at the taquero only to ask “me da otro con todo, don!” and watched him as he turned the trompo and sliced thin crispy pieces of adobada onto a tortilla; then you're going to go crazy for Tacos El Viejon.

The TJ-style tacos al carbón restaurant stands on East Cesar Chavez Avenue and is just four minutes away from East L.A.’s historic landmark El Pino. And although the brick and mortar restaurant is new to the area, Tacos El Viejon is far from new to its customers. The owners Alex and his father Rey Velazquez, have been street vending in L.A. and running their taco stand since 2017. For them, the new opening is symbolic of what many street vendors hope to accomplish one day.

“We do this all with love, and at the end of the day, it's been thanks to the people who have been supporting us. We literally just started out as a normal street vendor working day in and day out.”

“It's actually pretty crazy, I would have never expected it, but thankfully that dream came true,” Velazquez said. “We do this all with love, and at the end of the day, it's been thanks to the people who have been supporting us. We literally just started out as a normal street vendor working day in and day out.”

Velazquez expressed how a few days after the opening, he sat outside the restaurant and sent a video to his cousin in disbelief, saying: “Damn dude, how did we start a few years back to being here now.”

Although the Tacos El Viejon stand was established just three years ago, they are no strangers to L.A.’s Taco Life. The family's recipe for authentic TJ-style tacos al carbón dates back to the 80s.

Alex and his father Rey Velazquez stand outside Tacos El Viejon which opened in late January in East Los Angeles. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. Taco.

The Velazquez family, who is from Puebla, Mexico, has a long lineage of street vendors in their family, having taco stands in TJ, Puebla, Veracruz, and stands throughout Los Angeles. Some of those stands include Tacos Don Cuco in Compton and Ah Carbon Tacos in Montebello. 

At the time, the 24-year-old said there weren't as many TJ-style taco stands in East L.A., at least not like theirs, so they decided that it was time to bring the Velazquez family sazón to life by opening their own stand. 

“Through the time, the recipe our family used stayed with us, and we were like, you know what, let's do this and show what we know,” Velazquez said. “Of course, there’s other TJ-style taco stands out here, but everyone has their own way of making it different, and so do we.”

When asked what makes his tacos TJ style, he tells L.A. Taco:

“For sure tiene que ser al carbón (it has to be made with charcoal) and with mesquite, but it all really comes down to the marinade too, and of course the salsa roja,” he said. “Many people attempt to recreate the salsa roja they serve in TJ, but it’s never quite the same. I want to say ours is up there, and lastly, you gotta have handmade tortillas.”

Their taco stand, which is located on Hicks and Cesar Chavez Avenue, is just down the street from where their restaurant stands now. The family’s goal is to continue to open their stand while they adjust to the new business. 

However, their new restaurant’s opening and expansion have brought a sense of relief for Velazquez and his family. They have in the past experienced encounters with police and the city. Like other vendors, encounters included having their equipment taken away or simply working with the fear that the city or law enforcement could ticket them at any given moment. 

“We're thankful now that we have the restaurant because we can kind of avoid some of that because it was getting really tough out there for sure,” he said. “Especially right now, with the COVID situation, the city and cops tend to show up more, so it's almost like a sigh of relief having the restaurant.”

“I want to say that almost all street vendors have dreams of owning a restaurant one day or are saving for a bigger dream that without street vending probably wouldn't be possible,” he said. “I mean, look at us. Our dream came true.”

Velazquez recognizes that opening a restaurant during a pandemic is both a blessing and a risk, considering how most restaurants have slowed down in sales. Nevertheless, he is hopeful that their hard work and continued passion for serving their community will continue to be successful. 

He also points out the importance of supporting all street vendors as a new owner of a brick-and-mortar taquería.

“I want to say that almost all street vendors have dreams of owning a restaurant one day or are saving for a bigger dream that without street vending probably wouldn't be possible,” he said. “I mean, look at us. Our dream came true.”

Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. Taco.

In the meantime, the hustle for Velazquez continues as he serves up more than just tacos at his restaurant. Tacos El Viejon. He opens the doors at 8:30 in the morning and serves many Mexican favorites like birria plates served with rice and beans, burritos for both the early birds and the night owls. And for anyone on a keto diet, Tacos El Viejon has your back with their Ta-Keto taco that includes a tortilla made out of grilled cheese. 

Velazquez said they bring the taste of the streets to their restaurant and hope the community continues to enjoy and support their food and business. 

“One thing is for sure without the community's support; we wouldn't be here,” he said. “I also have to credit my dad because he taught me everything, sin el (without him), there wouldn't be a Tacos El Viejon stand or restaurant.”

Tacos El Viejon: 3456 E Cesar E. Chavez Avenue 90063

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