Tucked off to the side in a small parking lot at the corner of Dutch Mill Court and Reservoir Street sits a small blue food truck with a history.
Grilling fresh, made-to-order soft corn tortillas for the truck’s first customer of the day, Veronica Avila, the owner of Tacos El Primo, and her employees delicately stuff each one with ripe vegetables and thick sauces. Savory smells of beef and chicken cooking on a flat top flow out the serving window and right under customers’ noses.
Seven days a week, the Tacos El Primo crew whip up mild and spicy Mexican cuisine between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. With outdoor seating available and bright lights strewn about, Tacos El Primo invites all its customers to sit down, relax and enjoy their meal.
Avila moved to Harrisonburg from Riverside, California in 2005. She says that while she was born in California, her life is heavily rooted in Mexican culture. Growing up, her passion for cooking Mexican-style food with her family flourished. Once she moved, Avila and her partner at the time couldn’t find the flavors they craved, so they decided to give Harrisonburg a little Mexican-inspired zest. In 2006, Tacos El Primo became Harrisonburg’s first ever food truck.
“I lived in California pretty much all my life and that is something you find everywhere,” Avila said. “It’s so common that automatically when you think about eating out, you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s hit this little truck,’ and we missed that. I felt like if I want to do something different or do something new, then it’s going to be a truck. I feel like being a Mexican, I wanted to offer something that was real, authentic Mexican and that I knew how to cook well.”
Avila decided to invest in a truck rather than a sit-down restaurant because at first, while she believed in her food, she wasn’t sure if the business would thrive. If she had to shut it down, the loss from buying and selling a truck would be less than a building.
In Spanish, “Primo” means cousin. Avila and her partner gave the truck this name because they wanted all of its customers to feel like they were a part of a family.
When the truck opened, Avila would usually switch up parking locations to cover a larger area for the convenience of her customers. Over time, she wanted to find a permanent spot so customers would become familiar with the truck and associate the area with its food. Avila also decided to keep Tacos El Primo open seven days a week and during the cold months because she knows some loyal customers will still come back for their favorite dish any day of the year.
“Even though sales drop, I mean dramatically, compared to any other season, you still have the faithful customers,” Avila said. “I feel like it would be kind of a backstab not having it open because I’m not doing the same business that I do any other season. So as long as the business can pay bills and pay employees, I don’t care if I don’t make any profit during those times, it’s just the fact that I know I’m satisfying my customers.”
As the first food truck in the area, Tacos El Primo set the basis for this quick-service industry in the Shenandoah Valley. Now, food trucks have become a staple of Harrisonburg and there’s a food truck festival held each year in which all the ticket proceeds go directly to Open Doors, a homeless shelter.
“The first time I went [to Tacos El Primo], I thought it was pretty great,” Mush Robinson, a junior international affairs major, said. “I thought, ‘I can’t wait to go back,’ it was so good.”
Robinson likes to stick to the same tasty order each time she visits: beef tacos with cilantro and onions and a flavored Mexican soft drink called Jarritos. She feels that Tacos El Primo serves more meat in its tacos compared to other restaurants in the area.
Besides tacos, the truck serves burritos, quesadillas, tortas and tostadas. It was important to Avila to create menu items that appealed to her meat-loving customers, but could also be made without any meat for her vegetarian customers. Tacos El Primo has six meat options including chicken, steak, Mexican sausage, spicy pork, fried pork and beef tongue. Other tortilla-stuffing toppings are rice, beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, jalapeños, cheese, salsa, sour cream, avocado and cilantro.
Avila understands that when one goes to a food truck, they want fast and cheap service while still receiving an appetizing meal. She would rather master five items while giving customers a wide variety of flavors and toppings than overwhelm them with 20 menu items that she would struggle to keep up with in a small kitchen.
Charlie Smith, a junior media arts and design major, visited the truck for the first-time last semester and now often enjoys a bite to eat there with his friends. He finds the service accommodating and quick for large groups of people. Smith likes to switch up his meal every once in a while, but his go-to is four chorizo tacos with jalapeños, cheese, sour cream and guacamole. To him, Tacos El Primo is among the best places in Harrisonburg to grab a taco.
“It’s definitely closer to my heart than the others,” Smith said. “Just because it’s always a very welcoming atmosphere and I’ve got really great memories tied to the place.”
She likes to build a relationship with customers, and she and her employees will often memorize a returning customer’s order. She’s especially happy when JMU students bring their parents to the truck.
Avila also makes sure she and her employees always deliver a smile and engage with customers, so they have a positive experience every time they come back. A motto they serve by is to never let any item go out the window they wouldn’t eat.
She hopes to add a delivery feature to the business in the future so customers can enjoy her food anytime, anywhere. Avila’s also thinking about extending the truck’s hours until 2 a.m. during the summer nights. Avila is still taking some concerns about these changes into consideration, she knows many customers in the area, particularly college students, would happily welcome them. She was thrilled to learn Tacos El Primo was voted one of the Best of the ’Burg.
“Honestly, it’s an honor because I’ve been serving JMU students for so long,” Avila said. “We have always embraced them and never take students for granted. It’s pretty cool, you know, you feel like everything that you’ve done for so many years has paid off.”
Contact Traci Rasdorf at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture