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Tacos That Heal: These Veterans-Turned-Taqueros Are Drawing Lines in Pico-Union For Their TJ-Style Tacos

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]fter one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq during his nine-year career in the U.S. Army, Manuel Rojo knows all about operating under pressure. Only right now, it's the intense smoke of a hot grill and advancing lines of hungry Angelenos that he's facing.

It's Friday night at Veteran Tacos, the Tijuana-style taco stand that Rojo opened two weeks ago in Pico-Union with his cousins, fellow Army veterans Adrian and Joe Pelato, and Miguel Torres.

“Taco stands are just a culture and way of life for us,” Rojo says.

“We’ve all been through things separately and tacos have really been the glue that brought us together,” he continues. “I’ve been guilty of coming together for a little bit then distancing myself and going through it alone, and so have we all, but if someone shoots a text and says, ‘Hey we’re going to a taco spot on 47th or Avenue 26th,’ I’ll drop whatever I’m doing.”

The taquero forces at Veteran Tacos in Pico-Union.

The four cousins grew up together in Pico-Union and want to spread this unifying power of tacos to the neighborhood.

“Our mission is to give back to our community and speak for people in Pico-Union in these times because gentrification plays a huge role in lower-income neighborhoods,” Rojo tells the Taco. “Tijuana-style tacos are found outside of Pico-Union so people have to drive to try them. By doing this, we’re giving back and putting our learned skills out here.”

T.J.-style tacos carne asada at Veteran Tacos

The stand is starting out by selling tacos and mulitas stuffed with pepper-seasoned, orange juice-marinated carne asada. Chorizo and chicken may be introduced in the weeks to come.

They are sizable, simple tacos that highlight the juicy, tender steak within, a large dollop of creamy guacamole because Tijuana, some salsa roja, chopped white onions, and shredded cilantro providing the assist. Unlike some competing T.J. tacos we've had, no ingredient gets lost in a surfeit of ingredients or seasonings.

Adrian Pelato, making handmade tortillas.

The crew also stands out as a rare group of male taqueros that hand-make their own tortillas.

“Usually it’s the ladies out there whipping them up,” Rojo tells us, disclosing a little trial-and-error before Veteran learned to ace their thick, though soft tortillas.

Steady lines are already a notable feature of the brand-new stand, helping to fulfill another one of its missions: shifting the public's perspective on veterans.

“Sometimes when we tell people that we served, they think we’re crazy or they’ll look at us like we have issues or we’re just different and it’s very difficult,” Rojo says.

“Not only is it therapeutic for us to be hustling and grinding and having that pressure of a long line, but we also get to show people, hey, 'We did serve, we did see some stuff, we did do things that our country asked of us, but we’re still here functioning. We’re people that contribute back to society, our neighborhood, and our families.'”

Miguel Torres and Joe Pelato, manning the grill.

The owners of Veteran Tacos are not out here to tell tales about the combat its owners have endured. Nor does Rojo, still an active reservist, or his cousins take a political stand.

“There's probably nothing that hasn't already been heard,” Rojo says after taking a deep breath when asked about his experiences. “It’s a 20-year war now so I think it’s all been said.”

But he will give advice to Angelenos who are considering enlistment.

Rojo, left, with Miguel Torres on cleaver-duty.

“It’s important that once you make up your mind, you give everything you do 100 percent,” he says. “Things are going to get hard. But like the famous quote going around that Kobe said, it’s that journey. It’s a process of 'the suck' and being out of your comfort zone and doing something that’s new to you that you don’t like. Then you can look back and say 'okay, I am the person I am because of all the bad stuff that we endured.'”

Fortunately, one of the biggest fights these self-described “warriors bringing you aggressively delicious tacos” are being confronted with currently is simply one among themselves.

Veteran Tacos: Adrian Pelato, Miguel Rojo, Joe Pelato, and Miguel Torres.
Veteran Tacos: Adrian Pelato, Miguel Rojo, Joe Pelato and Miguel Torres

“I'm from Guadalajara, Miguel from Sinaloa, and Joe and Adrian are from Tijuana,” Rojo says about their heritage. “Whenever we make the salsa, we’re always going back and forth about which is the best way to make it.”

Though it is probably not a problem for a Tijuana taco stand, Baja seems to always win this argument.

“There are two of them,” Rojo explains. “We get outnumbered.”

Veteran Tacos ~ Fri.-Sat. 7 PM - 12 AM ~ 1500 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90015 and Tues. 7 PM at 1108 S Union Ave, Los Angeles, CA  90015 ~ (808) 321-7299

Awaiting the opening of Veteran Tacos on a Friday night in Pico-Union.

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