Will Big Truck Tacos Open the Door for Oklahoma City?
A funny thing happened to Big Truck Tacos owners Cally Johnson, Kathryn Mathis and Chris Lower on their way to opening a gourmet taqueria with a mobile kitchen: The world took notice.
And now they’ve got 10 grand and a date with Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race” to show for it.
Of course, the world is a much smaller place than it was 15 years ago. With Facebook and Twitter to bind us, you can fall in love without ever meeting face-to-face. And that’s just what happened to Big Truck as embodied by the 12,000-plus Facebook friends and 4,000-plus Twitter followers who helped vote them into this spot at the end of the rainbow.
I can’t think of a more ironic representation for Oklahoma City. These two unlikely ladies — Cally from Cali, Kathryn from Guymon — and Chris Lower, who has spent his career developing the city’s most important spots for fine dining. Two classically trained chefs and a high-end restaurateur who decided that tacos were the answer. (Hey, I’ve been saying that since I was five.)
And now they’re going to be on the big stage, and the viewing audience outside of our region will likely doubt the legitimacy of a truck from Okie City. If their competitors take them for granted, the last thing they’re likely to see is the tail lights of the BTTmobile.
On Sunday, another of BTT co-owner Chris Lower’s co-owned concepts: Irma’s Burger Shack hosted a watch party for the big announcement. Linda Lee, one of Lower’s myriad of business partners, had the place completely under control. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn such seemless service under such chaotic conditions.
The place was packed. Spirits were high. Expectations even higher.
What Oklahoma lacks in respect outside its borders is more than made up for by local pride. When Rick Bayless, an Oklahoma City native, won the “Top Chef Masters” competition in summer of 09, folks in these parts went wild. And that was for a guy who hasn’t lived in Oklahoma in three decades.
Now, Okies really have something to cheer about. The success of Big Truck Tacos has been beyond comprehension. Some day, business students will make it the subject of a thesis or dissertation on business models that spiral away from the original concept and into the stratosphere. While success wasn’t unexpected, the manner it was earned and the fervor with which the public has embraced it defies explanation.
So, why then?
It’s a matter of authenticity. Whoa! Calm down my fellow taco snobs. I’m not claiming that Big Truck Tacos are authentic Mexican street tacos. I’m telling you these are authentic Cally Johnson and Kathryn Mathis tacos. These two lovely ladies love tacos. The last thing they’re trying to do is make somebody else’s tacos. All they want to do is share their love of street food and express it as best they can, which is pretty incredibly.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. I’m not talking about a couple of great chefs showing off, I’m talking about a couple of people stepping out into the world sporting more ink than a 12-pack of Bic Pens, more piercings than a bull’s back in Pamplona and an aversion to sleeves without fear or apology and saying, “Here’s who we are, and this is what we do.”
It would’ve been a lot safer for them to hide in the kitchen and sell gringofied taqueria fare: carne asada, tacos al pastor and maybe a little lengua. But that wouldn’t be them. As I’m sure you’ll learn if you watch their adventures on Food Network next summer, these ladies speak their minds. I would say they wear their tacos on their sleeves, but they don’t wear sleeves too often.
Authenticity doesn’t come from following a recipe, it comes from fearlessly bearing your soul. That’s how a guy who couldn’t sing became Bob Dylan. That’s how a couple ladies with nice singing voices became Janis and Aretha rather than members of the church choir and little more.
The self-proclaimed taco twins don’t apologize for who they are or what they serve, nor should they. Apologies are for those of us who dream but never get off the couch.
Oklahoma City has never been taken seriously as a food town. There are no guarantees that this opportunity for BTT will change that, but it certainly pries loose the window of opportunity that’s long been shut on this town’s chefs. After the Taco Tuesday uproar between Iguana Mexican Grill and Taco John’s, wouldn’t be just the perfect irony for Oklahoma City to finally gain renown riding on the back of a taco truck.