St. Petersburg — A Mexican restaurant with its entire kitchen inside a bus is rolling onto Central Avenue soon. Even more surprising, it will have on-site parking and not just street parking.
Taco Bus at 913 E Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa has been a popular roadside Mexican hangout for a decade and will soon have a second location at 2324 Central Ave. in a former used car lot.
"All the cooking happens in the bus," owner Rene Valenzuela said. "We have a lot of people who drive all the way from St. Pete to Tampa and they always ask me when I'm going to open in St. Petersburg. Finally I got a good answer for them."
He picked the site because it has a lot of room for the bus as well as customers' cars. He hopes it will be a frequent destination for downtown employees and residents, University of South Florida students and Rays fans on their way to Tropicana Field.
Customers can order from the wait staff for sit-down service or walk up to the bus to order food to go. There will be indoor and outdoor seating. And unlike the Taco Bus in Tampa, the St. Petersburg location will sell beer and wine.
It's not unusual for restaurants to operate inside vehicles in Valenzuela's native Mexico. When he came to the United States about 16 years ago, he sold his homemade Mexican food from a trailer that he pulled behind his pickup truck. He bought Taco Bus from a cousin four years ago. Valenzuela started selling his food when he was in middle school in Monterrey, Mexico, at a stand he opened during weekends and summers.
"People would say 'Oh the kid with the tacos is here. Mmmmmm.' I really liked people making noises of enjoyment," he recalled. "It's a little bit like the applause for other artists when they are saying they enjoy your food."
Favorite Taco Bus dishes include the butternut squash tostada, chilorio (pulled pork in ancho pepper sauce), shrimp and cilantro tacos, and rajas con queso (strips of roasted poblano pepper with cheese, salsa and corn).
"This is authentic Mexican food made with fresh ingredients. We dice everything. We do not buy something that was diced and packaged in a plant," Valenzuela said. "The tomato you are eating was diced a few minutes ago. The shrimp are cooked to order." Tortillas, however, are made elsewhere.
Like the Tampa location, the St. Petersburg Taco Bus will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week so that firefighters, police officers, college students and third-shift workers can get their Mexican fix even in the wee hours of the morning.
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.