Text by Karl Kazaks | Photos by Tom Wallace
Taqueria el Paso
On a windy, sunny, spring afternoon, two men finished a meal at a picnic table adjacent to Taqueria el Paso, the food trailer serving Mexican cuisine from a parking lot across U.S. 460 Business from the Corning plant.
Joe Cook moved a few months ago to Christiansburg from Washington, D.C., where he was accustomed to being able to choose from a vast number of food trucks. “I love that they have food trucks here,” he says. “It’s a little bit of home.”
Cook and his friend, Brad Wyatt, had just enjoyed their first meal from Taqueria el Paso, “Based on the tacos,” Wyatt says, “I’m rating it a five-star food truck. The way they cooked the chicken . . . the spiciness . . . it’s very authentic.”
Taqueria el Paso is the result of the imagination and hard work of Josue Vasquez, a Honduras native who has been in the U.S. for 25 years. Vasquez worked for many years in the restaurant industry before finding work in construction. While in the building trades, Vasquez bought the double-axle trailer that is Taqueria el Paso and converted it to what it is today.
Inside are two flat-top cookers, versatile pieces of equipment on which Vasquez and his two employees cook tacos, quesadillas, burritos, burgers, hot dogs and tortas (a Mexican sandwich, made with a choice of meat, grilled onions and mozzarella cheese). There is an array of stainless steel (food safe) equipment, including a sink and a prep table. There are two refrigerators. Above the cooking station is a vent hood, and Pandora is used to program Latin music which plays quietly throughout the day.
The flat tops are fueled by propane, while power for the lights and refrigerator are provided by a generator Vasquez runs out of the back of his pickup truck parked nearby. While working construction, Vasquez used the trailer on weekends to cook for himself and family. Then one slow, winter day when there was no construction work, he said: “It’s time to go.”
After operating for a short time in Roanoke, Vasquez decided to try Christiansburg in front of a Mexican grocery – Tienda Latina Emily – operated by his brother. It’s been a hit from the start. The first Saturday he ran out of the food he brought with him and had to send for re-supply during the course of the day.
Being next to his brother’s store has been win-win for the two business. Vasquez doesn’t sell beverages, encouraging customers to buy drinks from his brother. His brother lets him use his indoor facilities for some prep work like most of the vegetable washing. At night,Vasquez takes his groceries into the store and keeps them refrigerated there.
Taqueria el Paso, which holds a health department license and local business permit, occasionally travels to area festivals, but Vasquez likes working at his main location. “A better place I couldn’t find than this,” he says.
On Wednesdays, you can find another food truck a short drive (or walk) from Taqueria el Paso. That’s when Thai This, a food truck serving Thai cuisine which has been in operation in the NRV for almost two years, rolls into the front of Fieldstone United Methodist Church.
Thai This is the brainchild of Brian Lawson and his wife Jang, a Thai native, with major assistance from Brian’s lifelong friend Steve Widner and the truck’s longtime employees. When Jang moved to Christiansburg to marry Brian, she brought her knowledge of Thai food. Sharing that food became a dream realized when the Lawsons contracted with a company that specializes in food truck conversions to build their truck.
The retrofit began with an Utilimaster truck, powered by a Cummins diesel engine, formerly used as a linen truck. Today there’s a wok station, fryer, four-burner stove and three-well steam table inside. Underneath the cooking line in a separate, enclosed bay is a military-style generator which is tied into the truck’s diesel supply and powers the kitchen operations. Like Vasquez’s trailer, this truck also uses propane for cooking.
Thai This serves food at a variety of locations around the NRV. In addition to being at Fieldstone on Wednesdays, the truck usually operates on Tuesdays from the Main Auto Spa in Blacksburg and on Sundays at Cedar Valley Exxon in Radford. Thursdays it alternates locations, with set-up points including Harvest Moon in Floyd, the CRC in Blacksburg and others.
Because its schedule changes, Thai This relies on its heavy social media presence to get the word out about locations each upcoming week. Being able to work with a variety of local businesses and organizations is part of what the Lawsons enjoy about operating at multiple places. They strive to provide mutual benefit to their area neighbors, for example, offering a complimentary spring roll to any customer who brings a donation to Fieldstone’s food drive on Wednesdays.
The Lawsons would like to add a permanent Thai restaurant to their food truck business. For now, they are glad to be part of the local food community, serving delicious food and exposing area residents to the types of food Thai cuisine offers. “Not all of our food is spicy,” Brian explains. “It’s about 50-50. I didn’t eat spicy food until I met Jang. Now I’m like, give me the chiles.”