Tacodeli paves the way for Austin taco phenomenon

Chandler Gibson

Imagine a world where tacos aren’t that big of a deal.

Wow, that was spooky. That was 1990s Austin, a city before Tacodeli. In 1999, business partners and UT alumni Roberto Espinosa of Mexico City and Eric Wilkerson of Dallas founded Tacodeli, a local taco restaurant that helped kickstart Austin’s weird obsession with putting everything in a tortilla.

“We have a 740-square-foot restaurant, which is the original at Barton Skyway and Spyglass, so it’s a tiny, tiny restaurant,” Espinosa said. “We’ve been able to get the word out about us through some more creative avenues to get people to sample our food and also to get some revenue going, so we’ve definitely had a bootstrap kind of approach to how we build our business.”

Espinosa said their “bootstrap” business model translates to going the extra mile in pursuit of extra sales. What that equates to is a history of pop-ups, catering, special relationships with coffee shops in Austin and going door-to-door at office buildings selling products straight from a cooler.

“The palate of the American consumer has evolved a lot in the time that I’ve been open,” Espinosa said. “Service is one of our most important things. I don’t think you can serve quality food without a warm embrace from our staff. That’s a big part of why people gravitate to us.”

One of their most iconic staff members, Bertha Gonzales, was born in Veracruz and moved to the U.S. over 50 years ago. She has worked in kitchens all her life. Gonzales — jokingly called the “Doña,” or the “Mistress,” of the kitchen — speaks very little English, so Wilkerson had to translate.

Gonzales said she was one of the first three or four original hires, and quickly became a figure in the kitchen. Her own salsa verde recipe, called Salsa Doña, is featured in every Tacodeli and even sold by the bottle at Whole Foods.

“There aren’t any shortcuts that we take in producing the food that we create, so, yeah, it’s limiting,” Espinosa said. “But it sets the standard for what we do. I think it’s also the reason that we have very talented kitchen staff that knows how to make the food we want to create.”

Wilkerson said everything served at all 11 Tacodelis is made in-house, whether it’s the meats, vegetables or their four salsas.  He said making everything with such quality is their biggest limitation.

“The quality of the food and the attention to detail (makes the food better),” Wilkerson said. “Not just the authenticity, but the sourcing of the food, the taste — we try to have an elevated guest experience.”

Both Espinosa and Wilkerson have backgrounds in the restaurant industry before Tacodeli. Espinosa worked in beverage sales in Atlanta, and Wilkerson worked in restaurant consulting. To students wanting to go into business for themselves, Espinosa said the best advice he can offer is to dive right in.

“The one thing you have to do is just do it,” Espinosa said. “You just have to jump right in and get your hands dirty. There’s no substitute for just doing what you want to do.”