Visalia’s New Culinary Heavyweight Answers the Challenge: Tacos Lucha
Ever have a taco with ingredients such as butternut squash, pickled onions or brisket with a fried egg on it? Such culinary art can be found with a little bit of effort when visiting places like San Francisco or Los Angeles. The opportunity to sample something so magic outside of those places is pretty rare though.
However, a chef passing through Visalia for a few days a couple of years ago had a vision for our town. Soon after his visit, Chris Gonzalez called the trendy Oregonian sushi restaurant Bamboo that was expecting him to serve as an executive chef and told them that he’s not coming; he had found his home.
As Chris searched for a place to set up shop, locals would tell him, “Don’t go to the Oval; stay away from the Oval.” The once-prominent Lincoln Oval Park, once the prospering center of town, had fallen into despair.
Enter a new breed of restaurateur. “This place reminds me of home,” says Chris, who honed his crafts in culturally rich areas of Los Angeles, Hollywood and Hermosa Beach. Chris says he and his wife, Athena, stopped in town to visit her parents, then they were to continue north. “Athena saw the colors of the trees in the area and fell in love with it,” Chris says of the circumstances that drew them to Visalia. “This is my home now; we’re here to stay,” he says. “I want my home nice.”
As of now, the Oval isn’t revitalized and not always aesthetically appealing. But that’s the treasure. Pop-up food ventures are quickly gaining customer followings on the north side.
Chris says of the move, “In the community, someone has to cast the first stone. I want to put the attention here.” When I asked about potential problems with the area eatery, he responds, “Nonexistent.”
I often go to north-side eateries, and I have never seen anything that would make me avoid the area. On my trips to Tacos Lucha, I’ve seen characters as complex as those in the “Star Wars” cantina, however, they do not approach Chris’ patrons because, in his kind, personal way, he has taken care of them and, in return, he is respected as an area business.
Tom Knox, local pro-skater and owner of Elite Jiu Jitsu Academy, has a reputation for being a Visalia foodie. He’s tried most out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall establishments in town. Tonight, he and his wife, Margie, came out for ramen noodles. Oh, have I not mentioned? Chris makes his own Japanese ramen noodles as well as Ban Buns (meat-infused bread bun) from scratch, the only place in town that does. Tom comes here three to four times a week. They are one couple out of four other young progressive-looking couples dining at twilight under the festive lights of Tacos Lucha.
When asked of the area’s reputation, he says, “I’ve never been hassled. I’ve been to other parts of town where people will approach me, but never here.”
Tom credits Chris for exposing Visalia to ramen. “And they are open late,” Margie points out as another plus. “When everything else shuts down, they are open.” The taco stand stays lit until 11 p.m. To strengthen my theory that the location is not a troubled spot, I contacted the Visalia Police Department, where I was told that there has not been one call or complaint at the eatery since it opened almost a year ago.
Spearheading area revitalization takes more than heart; it takes attraction. A simple taco stand in the Oval isn’t going to produce much of a culinary following. Visalia is far from short on Mexican food restaurants, and everybody has their favorite.
What is different here are the ingredients. All taco shells are made fresh, and filled with fillings such as double chocolate stout pulled pork, pork belly chachu, shrimp and longganisa, or chicken al pastor. If you’re not into meats, you’re in luck.
Customer Reham Franko says, “It’s nice to find a place with such vegetarian options.” She and her husband, Eddie, are visiting the taco stand for the first time, finding it by the favorable Yelp reviews.
Vegetarian options range from vegetable and Thai Chili, or potato and soy-rizo (a vegetarian chorizo option), or a panko-crusted avocado taco. Other choices include roasted Brussels sprouts, sake and butter mushroom, or cauliflower and carrot puree tacos.
Adding to the location’s charm, Chris says, “We make everything from scratch here.” To emphasize fresh, he says, “Every vegetable comes from Visalia’s Farmer’s Market,” showing his pride in working for the community within the community. The variety of the menu, the spectacle of watching Chris and assistants not only make tacos, but create them, often occurs in time to the house music or alternative rock-pop on his stereo. It’s sort of like a Willy Wonka taco experience.
You’ve seen Anthony Bourdain trekking the globe on his travel show. You ever see him going to a city and walking into a TGIFridays? No, he finds the hidden treasure troves. Most of the locations have an edge to them, which adds adventure to the experience. We have that opportunity in this town and, as residents, we owe an opportunity as patrons to those who stick their necks out in hopes of raising our quality of life.
There has since been added Ramona’s BBQ next to Tacos Lucha and, in an adjacent building, Chris shows me where his brick-oven pizza slice shop will be setting up in the near future.
Tacos Lucha’s sign is recognizable by the Luchedores wrestling mask. The name Lucha comes from Spanish for wrestler. The name was born to Chris and his friend, Anthony, while living in L.A. However, Anthony passed away, and the project was tabled until Chris honored his friend by erecting their dream.
“Lucha also means struggle,” Chris says. “Life’s about the struggle; it’s about the grind.”
In Visalia, there are plenty of eateries you can experience safely from the shore. But why not jump in the current of our town’s newest trend and give this ride a try.