THE EVOLUTION OF TACOS
Kurt Eller, founder and owner
My connection with tacos is a cumulative collection of personal memories of people, places, and experiences that evokes a certain “familiar fondness.” In my opinion, we each develop our relationships to food through our personalized journeys to arrive to a unique philosophy of what a taco represents. I see tacos as more than just nourishing food wrapped snuggly in a tortilla; they are miniature time capsules that stir feelings of a familiar fondness. I was lucky to have been raised in a land that created some of the first recorded tacos in history. Here is my journey.
Many of my earliest memories are of food, in particular, the Mexican food that dominated my hometown of Austin, Texas. In the late 1960s, my family would often dine with family friends at La Tapatia where I would inevitably order the cheese enchiladas. Even then, I was fascinated by the red chile, as its spice both daunted and thrilled me.
When I was 9 years old, we moved to Clear Lake, Texas on Galveston Bay where I developed an obsession with fresh seafood right off of the Vietnamese fishing boats — red fish, speckled trout, gulf shrimp, and oysters.
Growing up, we would travel to New Mexico and I fell in love with the smell of green chile roasting in the fall, which was outside everywhere we went, permeating the air with a sweet, spicy perfume for the duration of the season.
I moved in with my father who was living in Madras (now Chennai) in southeastern India during my sophomore year of high school where I experienced the marvels of south Indian cooking. Of course, I found the Indian version of a “taco” (a variety of proteins served in a round, wheat flatbread called chapatti or naan) irresistible. During this period one of my favorite pastimes was learning how to cook traditional Indian dishes, especially curries, with our live-in chef, Thomas.
I moved back to Texas for my final year of high school and attended college in the region while working a variety of restaurant jobs, both front and back of house. These led to multiple ventures owning and running restaurants in my early career.
After some successes and failures, I entered the furniture business in 2000 after seeking some one-of-a-kind pieces for a restaurant and stumbling across Four Hands furnishings in Austin. I recognized the smells and craftsmanship of Indian furniture and was immediately transported. Literally. My new position sent me to China and back to India working with various furniture factories, areas where, again, I had the chance to experience more incredible food. It was in northwestern India, in Jodhpur, Rajasthan that I really grew to appreciate spicy, grilled Indian food.
In 2006, the furniture business took me to St. Louis. I still couldn’t get my fond memories of food and New Mexico green/red chile out of my mind. I launched Taco Buddha in 2014 as a mobile catering company (a side business) with a focus on the different chiles used in cuisines across the globe, including the beloved red and green chile of New Mexico.
The name — Taco Buddha — reflects our embrace of fond memories of food not only from the traditional taco concept, but also our fond memories of the global formula of chiles, proteins, and vegetables served in bread.
While we continue to add different tacos to our menu, from day one, some of our most popular menu items were the adventurous Tandoori-Style Chicken and the Thai Street Beef alongside the more traditional New Mexican and south Texas-style tacos. We are proud to offer something delicious – for carnivores to vegetarians to vegans – without judgment.
With each dining experience, Taco Buddha strives to create the feeling of “familiar fondness” and of what tacos can conjure in an open mind.
“I feel so lucky to have acquired such quality people on my Taco Buddha team. It took me a while to find the right people and create a very real team. We work together based on trust and vulnerability. We don’t point fingers and admit when we’re wrong or when we’ve screwed up. I personally have to admit that a lot!”
– Kurt Eller, Founder and Owner
It is one of my primary functions to develop our leadership team’s culture (as well as all our staff) using the culture building tools I have and from what I’ve learned from some my mentors. This will be a never-ending process and they know my commitment to them.
One of my life’s goals is to grow Taco Buddha well enough so this will be their career path from which they can be happy, challenged daily and financially secure. They know that while I can help lead the way, it is up to them to create their future and my goal.
Brandon LannomKirkwood General Manager
Brandon comes to Taco Buddha by way of small town Illinois. His lifelong goal is to be Dolly Parton’s #1 fan! Although Taco Buddha isn’t quite Dollywood, he sure does make it just as fabulous. Graduating from SIUE with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Art History, he takes a colorful approach to any situation he’s presented with. Brandon joined our team with a substantial background in customer service and it shows in all he does. Most of you have met Brandon in our restaurant while ordering curbside, or from your catered events, and now you’ll see him leading the charge at our new Kirkwood location.
When asked what 3 things Brandon would bring to a deserted island, he said “Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits album, and my two cats”.
Miles McMillinUniversity City General Manager
Miles joined the Taco Buddha team in August of 2020 after leaving an assistant store manager position at Vans. In previous years, he honed his reputation as a “jack of all trades” working at Molly’s in Soulard, gaining valuable restaurant experience in the process. He transitioned seamlessly into the Taco Buddha culture and was quickly promoted to a leadership position where his dependably cheerful attitude and positive outlook make him popular with employees and customers alike. Miles is invested and excited to grow with Taco Buddha.
Liam JohnstonKitchen Manager
Liam joined Taco Buddha in April 2021 after years of restaurant experience working in St. Louis that shaped him into a leader with a resilient work ethic and a passion for food. He brought those qualities to our restaurant and quickly became a reliable leader in the kitchen while always bringing an infectiously goofy energy, even when the going gets tough. His steady and easy-going presence helps keep the kitchen running smoothly as he oversees operations and finds ways for us to improve. He’s excited about the future of Taco Buddha and we’re thrilled that he’s here to grow with us.
Michael ArnottMarketing Director
Michael is a seasoned Taco Buddha veteran. After graduating from Mizzou with a Bachelor’s in Mass Media Communication, Michael joined the team in 2019 when we reopened after the fire. Since then, he’s worked in just about every role this restaurant has to offer, adding social media and marketing to his Taco Buddha repertoire in 2021. Combining his restaurant knowledge with his past social media experience, Michael has thrived in his role as our marketing director, and we’re excited for what the future will bring as he continues to grow with us.
Mary Mack-EllerHR Manager
Mary is a beam of sunshine in our bright future at Taco Buddha. Right from the jump, she’s hopped in and made an impact on our employee experience from organizing insurance plans for our growing team to improving our hiring process for new employees. She brings 23 years of teaching experience, an appetite for learning, and an eagerness to help in any capacity to our team. Outside of making everyone’s day better, Mary loves her dog “Senko” (named after the STL Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko), traveling, reading, and taking in some tennis action. She’s an integral part of our team moving forward and we are thrilled she’s along for the ride.
Taco Buddha Staff
Many Taco Buddha associates are cross-trained to work all positions (both back of house and front of house) and they excel at what they do. Staff really does care about the results of their work, which is one of Taco Buddha’s primary ingredients. We like to think that our caring and compassion shine with each order. While about half of Taco Buddha’s part-time people rotate in and out, mostly because of school, there is very little turnover with full-time associates. Taco Buddha ensures associates are paid well/on the higher spectrum of restaurant workers. We are proud of the environment we’ve created as a place for staff to be their true selves in a culture rooted in teamwork and transparent communication.
MY HISTORY OF TACOS
Kurt Eller, founder and owner
As an aid to formatting our menu, in addition to my Mindmap, I took a trip down memory lane exploring my personal history with tacos. I invite you to share my experiences and hopefully gain some insight into why I see tacos as a vessel to continually deliver the feelings of “familiar fondness.”
Growing up as a kid in the later part of the 60s in Austin, my mom, quite a good cook, had many dinner ensembles in rotation. I happily credit my mother for my love of food and cooking. One of my favorite offerings was Tacos and Beans, a dish that was so simple but so good. The beans were pinto with just a little diced bacon, salt, pepper, red chili powder and possibly cilantro, although I’m not sure if that was generally available at the time. They would simmer all day in our old school Le Creuset after soaking the night before, filling the house with a familiar aroma. The tacos were fried, crispy, shaped, corn tortillas (certainly not Old El Paso, given the time) that were first filled with shredded iceberg lettuce then ground beef, simmered in, specifically, McCormick Taco Seasoning then topped with sharp cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, and onions.
During those early days, these classic types of tacos that my mother made were the singular definition of a taco. While I’ve seen examples that differ by having the lettuce on top of the meat, my mother, and everyone I knew who built tacos at the time, always started with lettuce first. I find it an honor for Taco Buddha to follow this tradition by following suit and starting each of our taco creations with either lettuce or cabbage slaw. Why? It just makes sense to me, likely as it did my influencers, to have the greens at the base to soak up the protein juices while still adding the necessary crunch.
By the way, I still love eating the original fried, shaped, crispy, corn tortilla tacos!
Later, when we would go out to eat Mexican food, I would watch my parents put fajita beef or chicken, carne asada, or stewed meats, possibly with mole, in tortillas (corn or flour) and top the meat with cheese then stuff and roll them up. I don’t remember anyone then calling this preparation a taco. I think that later on, maybe in the late 70s or early 80s, the term for this preparation was “soft taco”, meaning they weren’t in the fried, shaped, crispy, corn tortillas but instead in un-fried but warmed corn or flour tortillas.
I’ve recently been pondering what qualifies as a quality taco. Other than the fact that we are constantly analyzing our taco selections and ingredient quality, our team and I also want to make sure we’re following our shared philosophy of creating the experience of “familiar fondness.” This also means staying true to brand in that we’re not fooling ourselves with cute ingredient combinations to satisfy our vanities, of course.
What precipitated this line of thought is that I’ve noticed some concrete divisions amongst taco connoisseurs. To clarify, I get it and appreciate all of them. I really, truly do.
Primarily, I have found a divide between two groups of people. One grew up eating tacos that consisted of tortillas topped with a single meat and perhaps some combination of cheese, onions and cilantro. The other group has followed the likes of Torchy’s (based in Austin) or Velvet Taco (out of Dallas) that strive to include elevated taco ingredients with flavors from all over the globe with roots in street food. Another path still, includes those who followed the pattern of Chipotle and Qdoba where 12-inch large tortillas are stuffed full of beans, rice, proteins, and a wide variety of toppings to produce a huge burrito that, with determination, can be amazingly eaten in a single sitting.
Supplemental debates revolve around tortillas. People have strong feelings about which is best–corn or flour. We believe both are best depending on the ingredients that are layered in them. That’s why we use both, choosing one or the other that pairs best. Secondly, we’ve experienced the belief that handmade tortillas set the standard. While we do love some of the handmade tortillas made from small shops, especially those in Texas, we also believe that taste and consistency are the best criteria. I would prefer to eat a good tasting tortilla over a handmade one that is used just for the sake of being handmade.
The diversity of what’s currently offered as a “taco” is vastly different than my childhood experiences and continues to evolve. Here at Taco Buddha, one of our core beliefs is that there is no such thing as a “best” taco. We find inspiration and admire the diversity amongst the range of taco purveyors. The popularity of tacos in recent years, in my opinion, is the ability to layer tastes and have an original take on a time-honored classic, much like wine or a craft beer.
Non-negotiable aspects of a quality taco include:
- Quality ingredients
- Consistent assembly and prepped product recipes
- Fresh tortillas that are heated just prior to being filled as a taco
- Cater to customer demand, not to what sounds cute or looks good on paper
- People cooking (and serving) that really care about the product
- The spirit of the organization from top to bottom
Did I say “spirit”? Yep, I did… and I think that is the most important quality of a Taco!