Alfonso Dominguez is one busy guy—a busy guy with a mission. Between running Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana, a small plates Mexican restaurant in Old Oakland; El Taco Bike (a Mexican bike cart from which he sells packaged Mexican street foods); Era Art Bar in Oakland’s Uptown; and PopUpHood (a small business incubator), he’s already got his hands full. And, oh, he’s also trying to start a music festival in Oakland and a business selling food bikes and he’s got a young child at home.
With all these activities you’d think he wouldn’t have time for much else, but his real mission and passion is to show Americans what real Mexican food is like—which is nothing like what most Americans have come to associate Mexican food with, all while helping to revitalize Oakland, the town he loves and he grew up in.
“I was pretty much sick of what people think Mexican food is—this whole rice and beans slop with olives on top type of thing. It was frustrating to see that [most restaurants] were doing that and that no one was really doing some real cuisine, some real Mexican food because Mexicans don’t eat that—that’s Americanized Mexican food. And it was sad because they didn’t want to take the risk and do the real thing because of supply and demand—you don’t want to fix something that’s not broken for them,” Alfonso said.
Although many taquerias tend to be a bit more true to the food actually served in Mexico, Alfonso says, most sit-down Mexican restaurants with “enchilada combo plates” don’t exist in Mexico. Despite the fact that his parents owned a taqueria while he was growing up that served that kind of food, after returning to Oakland after college, Alfonso wanted to try to introduce more authentic dishes to the city. Tamarindo, which Alfonso runs with his mother and which opened in 2006, was their way to both introduce real Mexican food to Oakland and also take advantage of the small plates movement by introducing the concept of the antojeria, or Mexican small plates, he says.
“It was just the frustration of seeing how Mexican food wasn’t communicated right,” he said. “With Tamarindo, I really wanted to communicate the original food.”
Another thing Alfonso felt was really missing here was authentic street food. In Mexico, like in many other parts of the world, it’s far more common to see people selling things like taquitos or tamales on the street and people eating street food while they’re out walking. Having a variety of these type of small bites from different vendors as a meal when out for an evening is far more typical of other countries than it is in America. That was also the spirit he wanted to capture when he and his mother opened Tamarindo.
“We were one of the first to do that in the East Bay,” he said.
“My idea was if I stick with the true dish and the true recipe, I’ll never go out of print—because you can’t kill that. My grandmother wants that, my kids are going to want that, their kids are going to want that. So I’m passing tradition with my restaurant—I’m going to continue passing tradition. That’s the basis of Tamarindo,” he said.
When Alfonso saw the food truck trend starting to take off, again he felt that he wanted to showcase the true representation of how street food is made in Mexico, which is done not with trucks (“there’s no food trucks in Mexico either,” he said), but with bike carts.
“Eating in the street is a third world country’s thing. Mexico, Thailand, China—everybody’s used to eating in the street—it’s a social norm. Now it’s becoming popular here, and I wasn’t about to do a food truck because it wasn’t a representation of what I wanted to do, so I decided to do a bike cart. It’s actually an actual bike that you see in Oaxaca or Mexico City—a true representation of the actual food truck that they have in Mexico.”
Ironically, Alfonso says, the trend of food “trucks” has now infiltrated Mexico from America, but bike carts remain the staple.
“If they want to know what true Mexican street food is like, I’m going represent what it is,” he said. “You go to China or Thailand, everybody does food on a bike it’s just a cultural thing.”
Because Alfonso has a degree in architecture, he considered building a food bike to be a design challenge that he wanted to take on. So he did his research and found someone who had made a bike using traditional Mexican bike frame. They partnered up to design and build a bike, and El Taco Bike became the first “hot bike” in California that he’s aware of, he said. Despite going back into the family business of running restaurants, Alfonso says he uses architecture degree in everything he does—from resto design to bike design. He also does design projects for friends and family—he recently helped a friend redesign and remodel his kitchen. “At the end of the day, I still work that muscle,” he said.
Unfortunately, due to health regulations, bike vendors are still not allowed to actually cook on their bikes like in other countries or like in food trucks. Instead, they are only able to serve hot, pre-packaged items wrapped in foil or something similar for customers to take away. Because Alfonso can’t cook on the bike, he serves take away tamales, burritos or tacos.
Alfonso would also like to design and build similar bikes for others in the food community who are interested in starting a small, bike-based street food business. Food trucks, for example, he says go for approximately $80,000-$90,000. A bike, on the other hand, he plans to sell for about $8,000. “So you can make your money back in three months,” he said.
Starting with a bike, he says, is a transitional way for entrepreneurs to try their hand at the food industry without losing their shirts so they can see if it’s for them since the food industry is so difficult to be in. “I’ve been in it for my whole life, I was born in it, but I wouldn’t promote it, the restaurant business, it’s the hardest thing.” He’s currently been consulting with people who want to build bikes and is looking to raise capital so that he can start building the bikes for others, particular for other Latinos who want to capitalize on their street food heritage. He thinks the bikes would do particularly well in Los Angeles.
At both Tamarindo and El Taco Bike, all the recipes used are a true representation of different regions of Mexico, Alfonso says. To help foster this goal, Tamarindo also hosts a chef series where they invite top chefs from Mexico to come and create meals on Sundays. In July, they hosted Chef Octavio Olivas, who is currently working in LA at the Ceviche Project to do a five-course ceviche meal.
Ultimately, Alfonso’s goal is to carry on traditions and have people’s grandmothers recognize what’s being served as something they would serve at home—to him the highest praise is to have other first, second or third generation kids like himself want to bring their family to his restaurants to share the traditions they received from their families.
“They should be able to bring their family and see that I passed their test,” he says. “For me, that’s my American dream.”
What drew you to food?
My family and just cooking. My grandmother—staying over at my grandmother’s house, making tortillas. My mother, my parents used to work a lot so they used to tell me to cook so when my father got home, there was food on the table.
Why a food bike?
Just to represent the true street food. There’s something about having people be really close to the cook and the food and then when they grab it there’s more connection, so it’s like that barrier of getting food from a big box monster Transformer thing from something cute small and someone’s just doing it right there for you feels more personable.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Obviously from Mexico, from those flavors. The flavor profile of Mexican cuisine is awesome. I love spicy. My second choice would be Thai food. Spice, spice—spice of life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Stay true to your passion. Don’t follow. Don’t be a follower, be a leader.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
The biggest challenge is the economy.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
It never feels like I’m going to work.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
For the taco bike, the tacos—the carnitas is just out of control. And buche—it’s basically pork stomach, pig stomach.
At the restaurant, there’s so many. Las Mulas—the dish comes from the streets of Tijuana, it’s basically two handmade tortillas, like a quesadilla, and then between it they put steak and guacamole and salsa. Real simple, but so good.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
Oh, man, there’s so many, there’s so many. I mean Paul Canales from Duende. James [Shyabout] from Hawker Fare and Commis. Sara [Kirnon] from Miss Ollie’s—she’s across the street from me, I go all the time. It feels like I’m eating my food. She’s doing exactly what we’re doing—staying true to traditional flavors. Seriously, there’s so many.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Handmade flour tortillas with butter. Yeah, fresh handmade flour tortillas with a sliver of butter is oh my god…
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
That’s a crazy hard question right there, a crazy hard question. I’m would have to say, because I go there a lot and I enjoy it, would have to be Sara at Miss Ollie’s right now.
Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana
El Taco Bike
Photos courtesy of Alfonso Dominguez.