When I came to C-U in 2016 to study at the University of Illinois, I could fix my taco craving at most places in town, but I hadn’t found the one that really hit the spot until I tried Taco Motorizado in 2018. A little bit east of the University’s campus, Taco Motorizado is parked up on North Cunningham Avenue.
My go-to combo is two tacos al pastor with an elote on the side. Chef Teofilo never disappoints, and the richness of the green and red salsas perfectly mesh with the flavors of the tacos. I love the combination of the red salsa with the sweetness of the tacos al pastor and the green salsa on the tacos de lengua.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Chef Teofilo to learn more about the food and man behind the traditional Mexican Food Truck. 25 years ago, Chef Teofilo Padron, owner of Mexican food truck Taco Motorizado, immigrated from Mexico City to Urbana. Taught by his mom, Chef Teofilo learned to cook chiles rellenos, enchiladas, and other traditional Mexican dishes. Bringing his passion for cooking Mexican cuisine to the United States, Chef Teofilo sharpened his cooking techniques while working at various American and Mexican restaurants before putting his refined skills into practice at his food truck.
The interview below was conducted in Spanish and was translated into English for SP readers.
Smile Politely: Where did the idea for Taco Motorizado come from and when did you decide to open?
Padron: The idea comes from various years ago, about 10 years ago. Right now, the truck is here in Urbana, and it’s always been here. I used to work at the restaurant called Mas Amigos, and, at that point, I was working at their food truck. Then, they closed Mas Amigos, and I decided to continue running the food truck on my own about four or five years ago. I sell tacos and tortas how they’re prepared in Mexico City. Here in Urbana-Champaign, Mexican restaurants didn’t really sell tortas how they’re prepared in Mexico City. They sold another kind of style. We revolutionized the idea of tortas here, including tortas de pastor and Cubanas. Now, more places sell them, but we arrived here with that idea. In Mexico City, we eat a lot of tacos and tortas. On almost every street corner in Mexico City, there are taco and torta stands, so we brought that idea here by opening a food truck.
SP: I have yet to try Taco Motorizado’s tortas, but now that you mention it, I do notice that tortas aren’t as prominent on the menu at other Mexican restaurants in C-U as it is at Taco Motorizado.
Padron: Yeah, we sell a lot of tortas. A lot of our Hispanic clients come here for the tortas. We also sell a lot of tacos. In Mexico City, we get a mix of the cuisine of all of Mexico’s states. However, people from other states may not be as familiar with tortas. Here there are many people from various states, and they’re familiar with tortas ahogadas (originating from Guadalajara, Jalisco, tortas ahogadas are drowned in salsa), but many aren’t familiar with pambazos (originating from Mexico City, pambazos are tortas stuffed with potato and chorizo served on fried white bread that was dunked in salsa).
SP: Do you manage the food truck by yourself?
Padron: Everything I do here, I do it myself. I stay at the truck, attend to clients, and cook everything. I used to deliver the food myself, but now I use delivery services to do that for me. I wake up at 5 a.m. every day and go to the store to buy all of the ingredients I need for the day. After visiting the store, I return to the truck and prepare everything and open at 11 a.m. and stay until I close, which is at 8 p.m. Then the next day, I do it all over again. I have another cook that comes later in the day sometimes to help with orders.
SP: Now that you’ve been open for four to five years, have you noticed any differences since you’ve started?
Padron: The only difference I’ve noticed is how busy I am. When I first started, I could sit and take breaks and leave if I needed to, but now I can’t because we’re busy every day. I’ve been able to meet more people through having more clients. When I first started it was calmer and I could sit and read, but now I have no time for that.
SP: Of the dishes your menu offers, which is your favorite to eat?
Padron: Tacos and tortas. I like tacos de pastor, asada, and lengua. The torta Cubana is also one of my favorites because it has different types of meats.
SP: I was happily surprised to see that Taco Motorizado offers tacos de lengua. It’s rare to find it offered at many taco restaurants. I also love the combination of your salsas with the tacos de lengua and pastor.
Padron: I’ve been to several restaurants in Chicago, and their salsas are too runny and slip out easily from the tacos, making it messy. Salsas need to be thick so that they don’t fall out of the taco and onto your shirt. They also shouldn’t be overly spicy, so that there’s still flavor. If it’s too spicy, you can’t really taste the flavor. That’s what I aim for with mine.
SP: What dishes are most ordered?
Padron: It depends. My American clients typically order burritos, nachos and chips, and salsa with queso. My Hispanic clients always come for tacos and tortas. I also have a lot of vegetarian clients, and they come for the veggie burritos, tortas, and quesadillas.
SP: I’m happy to hear your business has kept busy. With the current pandemic going on, has it affected your business?
Padron: My restaurant was affected, but it also benefitted. It was affected because all the students left, and there weren’t as many orders from them. Also, people weren’t leaving their houses. However, with people staying home, I got new clients because people began to order food because that was their only option. I gained new clients because they tried my food, and they liked it. I could also remain open because I don’t have tables for people to sit, so food trucks could continue business as normal. While we do delivery, people can still come and order at the truck.
SP: What is your favorite part of running the Taco Motorizado food truck?
Padron: I get to meet more people and serve more people, like right now I’m getting to know you, and now I get to know another person. I like getting to meet people and learn about them and what they think about my food. I love what I do. It’s work I’ve always done and enjoyed.
Orders can be placed online through Taco Motorizado’s website or in-person, which is cash only.
607 N Cunningham Ave
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.