TAMPA — Last week, I caught up with Rene Valenzuela. He sounded pretty busy.
It was May 4 and I had somehow blanked that the next day was Cinco de Mayo — the busiest day of the year for those in the taco game.
But while the chef and owner of Rene’s Mexican Kitchen had more important things to do than talk to me, he was happy to stay on the phone chatting for close to an hour about his business.
Tacos are, after all, kind of his thing.
You may remember Valenzuela as the original founder of Taco Bus in Tampa. One of the first Florida food trucks to draw national acclaim, he grew the bus-turned-restaurant in Seminole Heights into a widely recognizable Florida brand that at its peak was attracting national attention, including visits from celebrity chef Guy Fieri on his hit Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Six years ago, Valenzuela left the company, selling his stake in the restaurant brand to another investor. He began planning a new solo venture, what he then imagined would be a high-end Mexican steakhouse.
Life had other plans. In 2018, a horrific accident caused by a gas explosion nearly killed the chef, and left him with severe burns. Valenzuela spent six months in the hospital in an intensive burn center and another six months recuperating at home.
By the time he was ready to go back to work, most of what Valenzuela had made in the Taco Bus sale had gone toward his medical expenses, and what he had left wasn’t enough to open the kind of restaurant he had imagined.
So he took a different route.
“Being at the hospital was also a great time for reflection,” Valenzuela said. “One of the epiphanies I had is that we really have little time to do the work that we want to do, and the work that we are meant to do.”
What Valenzuela really wanted to do is cook his food — the food of his home in Monterrey, Mexico, and the food of his family and ancestors.
For the past two years, Valenzuela, now 50, has been cooking those dishes at Rene’s Mexican Kitchen, a small taco truck he runs with his wife and sometimes his son, who helps out on the weekends. After a couple of address changes, he appears to have found a permanent home at 4414 N Nebraska Ave., in southeast Seminole Heights.
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Valenzuela likes to describe his cooking as “on the edge” of people’s comfort zones. Rooted heavily in his own upbringing, his cooking pulls from a wide swath of influences, inspired by colonial-era dishes, lesser-known indigenous recipes and modern Mexican street cuisine.
“I like to indulge in the evolution of culture, and food is one of the elements of culture,” Valenzuela said. “This food is not for everyone, but it’s for the foodie who wants to experience something unique.”
Unique (and delicious) is how I’d describe a special featured a few weekends ago, which highlighted homemade green chorizo inspired by the version served in the central Mexican city of Toluca. Here, Valenzuela combined the smoky crumbled sausage made with green chiles and pumpkin seeds with rajas con queso — a roasted poblano pepper dish made with Mexican panela cheese. The chorizo’s soft, smoky heat was balanced by a squirt of lime and a heap of crunchy cabbage and diced tomatoes.
Often, the specials listed boast a fish or seafood component — whatever strikes Valenzuela’s fancy that day at the market. One week it might be seared wahoo topped with daikon radish, and another it could be crispy monkfish nuggets coupled with a charred tomato and serrano pepper sauce with garlic chips. And who can forget the time he served stingray, bathed in garlic butter?
“That was kind of unusual,” he laughed.
There was also a standout smoked swordfish taco. Valenzuela brined the fish in a dark ale and smoked it over pecan wood before shredding and tossing in a tomato, roasted garlic and chile morita sauce.
One of the longer-running dishes at Rene’s Mexican Kitchen features a kind of play on surf and turf. Soft hunks of octopus are coupled with seared shrimp, roasted poblano peppers and garlic confit. The taco arrives topped with crispy-fried pork chicharron, which add a lovely contrast in texture while fresh pico de gallo provides a welcome acidic jolt.
The tacos, which range in price from $4 to $6, can be ordered on corn or flour tortillas (I’m partial to the corn) or turned into a burrito for a few extra bucks. Each order arrives accompanied by two salsas: a charred jalapeno and tomatillo sauce that packs a milder heat and a fiery bright orange version made with chile de arbol. (This one is a scorcher, so approach with caution.)
After building a solid following, Valenzuela said he’s close to having enough momentum to finally expand. He has rented out the building on the lot behind him and is hoping to add more seating in the coming months. For now, there are two wooden picnic tables outside the truck — enough for a handful of folks — but most diners take their tacos to-go, or to Southern Brewing & Winemaking across the street.
Whatever you do, make sure you pick up a pineapple kiwi or strawberry agua fresca for the road. Served in pint containers (and ice, if you ask for it), they’re the perfect, refreshing accompaniment to a hot car ride home.
Valenzuela said not a day goes by that he isn’t reminded of how lucky he was to survive the accident. These days, while he’s cooking his heart out inside his tiny truck and hustling to expand his business, he tries to remember the lessons he took from that incident.
“Life just told me — hey, life is not waiting,” he said. “I’ve got to do my own thing. I’ve got to bring it all out.”
If you go
Where: 4414 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. 813-500-2510. renesmexicankitchen.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Prices: Tacos, $4 to $6; burritos, $8 to $9
Don’t skip: green chorizo taco, smoked swordfish taco, agua frescas
Need to know: Seating is limited outside the truck, so plan on taking your tacos to-go, or grab a seat and a beer at Southern Brewing & Winemaking across the street.