Derrick Braziel loves tacos and Cincinnati. But he didn’t grow up with authentic Mexican food adorning his dinner table. He hadn’t even discovered his favorite type of taco — tacos al pastor — until visiting Mexico City for the first time several years ago.
“It activated some taste buds I didn’t know I had,” he says.
Braziel’s Pata Roja Taquería inhabits the walk-up window in the back of The Takeaway deli and grocer off Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. The name is a loose translation of “red leg,” in a joint celebration of Mexican and Cincinnati cultures.
“It’s an opportunity to educate, to expose people to new foods and to honor this culinary tradition that has so much depth, but is still so unfamiliar to so many eaters — especially here in Cincinnati,” Braziel says.
Pata Roja’s menu is kind to the indecisive: it only lists three tacos, four salsas and a $5 chips and guac. Though tacos al pastor are the focal point, there are also bistec (steak) and seasonal veggie taco (right now they’re mushroom) for those who don’t eat pork.
Forget the FOMO and order one of each, then pregame your taco flight with chips and guac. That should give you enough time to consider which salsas to slather on your paper-plate feast. Creamy? Hot? Smoky? Mild?
Since his first visit, Braziel has been to Mexico 10 times. Each time he goes, he immerses himself in the culture, discovering the ins and outs of Mexican cuisine and learning Spanish along the way. Last December, Braziel spent five weeks in Mexico City working in a taquería.
“Those cooks were cussing me out all the time, telling me how much I sucked,” he says, laughing. “Well, I’m assuming that’s what they said based on their tone.”
As he learned to cook Mexican food trial-by-fire style, he also got an expedited education in Spanish. He got serious about becoming fluent so he could communicate more effectively in the kitchen. Then he got seriously hungry for tacos al pastor once he got back to the States, but came up short in his search.
His day job as the development director at MORTAR, a nonprofit focused on getting BIPOC startups off the ground, was a good petri dish to help cultivate the idea of opening a taqueria.
“Last March, I ended up buying a taco cart and starting the business,” he says.
Braziel founded Pata Roja Taquería to sate his own craving for tacos al pastor and share that experience with Cincinnati. The taquería is only open on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. until sell-out, which means prep begins on Thursday. He stops by his butcher, El Valle Verde, where he picks up his proteins.
“They know how to prepare al pastor,” Braziel says. “I’ve tried many other butcher shops. These guys do it the best.”
He picks up tortillas from Tortillería García, which he also deems the best in Cincinnati, and then he hits the kitchen to start the marinades.
On Friday morning, it’s time to form the trompo.
Spanish for “spinning top,” the trompo is that dreamy stack of thinly-sliced meat speared onto a rotisserie and bookended with a pineapple. Once the spit is loaded, he throws it in the fridge to let it take shape, pulls it out two hours before service and begins roasting it.
“Once it develops that first crust, I shave it off and that’s where the real magic starts to happen because it begins to caramelize,” Braziel says. “That’s where it starts to really take the al pastor shape and is ready to serve.”
Braziel’s tacos are rooted in Central Mexican culinary traditions, which he’s applied and adapted to use at Pata Roja.
“(My business) is a combination of me being a Black American who has a love and passion for Mexico and how those two worlds collide,” he says.
“I’m hoping to build on the culinary traditions of Mexico, to honor those traditions, but at the same time, bring my own unique flavor to it.”
Braziel adds a bit of “United States-ian flare” to his tacos by melting cheese directly onto the tortilla until it crisps up. “I think it gives (the tacos) an interesting texture,” he says.
Beyond their punchy flavor, tacos al pastor are known for their simultaneously crispy and juicy texture thanks to a very long marinating and roasting process.
Mexico City has Lebanese immigrants to thank for bringing their centuries-old spit-roasting technique with them across the pond. In Lebanon, this technique is used to make shawarma. The Greeks use the same technique to make gyros. Across several cultures, this technique is beloved. It’s not simple. It’s not quick. But it yields an unmatchable result.
“When it roasts, it creates a crust on the outside, so there’s this crunchiness, then there’s the tender pieces,” Braziel says. “All these things combined are like a science experiment, and when you get that right, there are few things better.”
Braziel’s plans for Pata Roja include expanding his business beyond a three-taco menu and into a brick and mortar location.
“The vision I have is so far into the future, but right now, I’m just focusing on making sure the product is excellent every single weekend,” he says.
Pata Roja Taqueria, 1324 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/patarojatacos.