CEDAR FALLS — Maribel Islas and family are bringing authentic Mexican street food to Cedar Falls.
She’s following a household tradition by opening an eatery of her own, Tacoz California, at 200 W. First St., in the space formerly occupied by David’s Taphouse and Dumplings.
Her family began running the Los Reyes food truck in Waterloo at “Six Corners” — the intersection of West Fourth Street and Kimball, Campbell, and Williston avenues — in 2017.
Her mother, Maria Islas, and brother, Antonio Islas, initially sold burritos at the Tyson Foods facility while working there. Later, they ran the food truck with the help of Maribel and her children. They then opened up a restaurant called Taqueria Los Reyes on Franklin Street in Waterloo.
Maribel Islas followed in her family members’ footsteps by running a Tacoz California food truck in the same spot they did back in 2020. Now, though, she has taken the step of opening a brick-and-mortar space that began offering similar cuisine right before the start of 2023.
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“People we know will like the street food and tacos with fresh homemade corn tortillas,” Islas said. “There’s not a lot of places like this, and it’s different from a typical Mexican restaurant. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback. Any negative feedback, I always tell people, we’ll learn from it.”
“We love food, but decided to do our own thing,” she added in explaining why they decided not to team up with her brother and mother. “We’d be working close with family and didn’t want to mess up what we have as a family because family is a very important thing.”
Islas, of Evansdale, gave a lot of credit to her mother for teaching her family how “to make delicious authentic Mexican food. … She taught us how to make the real stuff.”
“It’s not packaged. It’s fresh rice, fresh salsa, and we’re cutting everything fresh” ranging from the onions to the limes, radishes, lettuce and everything in between. “It’s homemade. The meats are cut fresh too.”
The family offers carne asada, al pastor, chicken and chorizo for the tacos as well as other meats like cheek and tongue. While admittedly not authentic, they have given in a bit and offer ground beef too.
Their roots are in Salinas, California, a central coast town close to San Francisco, where taco vendors dot the streets. Their mother immigrated there from Jerez, a town in the state of Zacatecas, about 50 years ago.
They followed Islas’ sister, Joanna, who moved to Iowa because of her husband. Islas been living in the Cedar Valley the last 13 years.
The most popular item on the menu has been the birria taco. She encourages people to try it, but recognizes “it’s different and not for everybody.”
“It’s got a strong beef flavor and comes with a broth and spices,” she said.
Islas has a behind-the-scenes role, while daughters Joanna and Vanessa Romero and brother Jose Islas have taken on management and kitchen responsibilities.
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“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here,” she said about why she finally was able to decide “I’m going to do this” and open up the physical location.
“Our mother had a vision and executed it,” said Jose Islas. “Just look at all the decorations. Her ideas were something fresh, new and colorful.”
“I wanted to help make her dream come true,” added Joanna Romero, who is depicted as a caricature in the official logo. “She’s always wanted to own her own restaurant.” Romero noted she’s enjoyed seeing her mother smile in the days since opening.
The facility is decorated like the “bright colors and graffiti” seen in Salinas, California. One of the portraits behind the bar area — they are still working on obtaining a liquor license — features sunglasses with the reflections of the “low rider” vehicles commonly driven on the city’s streets. Also among the décor are dolls with a “Dia De Los Muertos” theme, the Day of the Dead celebration.
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It brings that feeling of a “whole culture of chicanos” – not from United States or Mexico, but sort of a hybrid “American of Mexican origin.”
“Chicanos are not from Chicago,” she quipped, as she’ll sometimes hear in the Midwest.
Tacoz California is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. More about the restaurant as well as the complete menu can be found online at its Facebook page. In addition to tacos, it offers burritos, quesadillas, ramen noodles and other sides.
“That’s the latest we’re open because I don’t want to overwork my staff. They’re already here 12 hours for the day,” she said. “It’s hard work. I’m here at 6 a.m. and am leaving at 9 p.m.”
“It’s tough, but I love what I’m doing,” she added.
In the future, she plans to offer alcoholic beverages and open an elevated private party area in the facility.
As with many businesses, the opening days have been hectic, but it’s seen early success even without an official sign immediately put out front.
“It’s not been easy. We’ve been short-staffed,” said Islas. “It’s been really crazy in the kitchen. But people have been understanding and supportive.”
The restaurant is seeking to add more cooks. It has a sit-down area feeding about 75 people, but orders are placed at the counter and no waiters have been hired.
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