Nick Maestas' most vivid memory is the sights and sounds of his grandmother cooking tortillas. With a red bandanna tied around her head, she would roll them from scratch and while shuffling them in and out of a hot skillet while he looked on.

"She would knock out hundreds in no time at all. It was like an octopus," he said. "I remember those smells, she’d slap a thing of butter on them and put it on a plate in front of me."

Working in the kitchen with them and then gathering around the table to serve the fruits of their labor to his family is a comfortable memory to him. And what he remembers most was the faces of his grandparents after they set the last plate on the table.

"It's not always just the food," he said. "It's how happy everyone was to sit around that table and I remember how happy they were to serve people."

And those happy, safe feelings are exactly what Maestas hopes to impart on every customer who chooses to eat at Muchachos, one of Lincoln's most popular taco food trucks.

In an effort to climb out of an emotional hole he found himself in after his grandfather died in 2012, Maestas began cooking the recipes he was raised on as an outlet for his grieving. 

"When he died, he was a father figure to me. I started drinking a lot heavier than I care to admit," he said. "Growing up in my grandparents kitchen, that's how I feel most at home and that’s how I feel safe and comforted."

"I want to make people happy. I want them to leave my truck or I want them to hang up the phone knowing they’re taken care of," Maestas said.

Maestas grew up cooking with his grandparents in their kitchen in Las Vegas, a small town in a patch of the dry New Mexico desert with a history of cowboys and outlaws. The dishes he learned from them were important staples in Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, but in order to complete that mission, Maestas had to do something different to set his tacos apart from the competition.

"I originally made food that my grandparents made, but people said it was no different than what people could get at any Mexican restaurant in town," he said. "I didn’t want that, I wanted to stick out."

So he blended the two worlds together into tacos with a New Mexican-barbecue fusion.

A meat smoking fanatic, Maestas serves New Mexican-barbecued meat as the base of his tacos. Each meat is rubbed with a spice blend featuring hatch chiles, a green chile pepper grown in Hatch, New Mexico. 

They look similar to Anaheim peppers, but Maestas said they provide a flavor profile that's unique to New Mexican dishes.

"Most people wouldn't know the difference between the two, but if you taste it then you realize that hatch chiles have a richer, deeper, smokier flavor to them," he said. "And they're significantly hotter than Anaheim."

Maestas makes a special green hatch chile salsa by roasting the peppers and making a spicier green salsa you'd be hard pressed to find an equal to in Lincoln.

Some hatch chiles will eventually turn red, which Maestas dries out and blends into a spice rub that he adds to coleslaw and the rubs he applies to the meat he smokes.

"We’re really taking that core New Mexican flavor that I grew up tasting and blending it with my love of smoking barbecue," he said.

Even the turquoise truck carries memories of Maestas time in New Mexico.

He discovered it while browsing through a Facebook group geared around food truck owners, and he encountered a photo of it from a vendor in St. Louis. It would cost him $18,000 and it would break down constantly while he drove it back, requiring his father's skills as a hobbyist mechanic to fix up.

But it was worth it.

"This particular truck was the same color as my grandparents house growing up," Maestas said. "I was sold the second I saw it. I needed this thing."

Now in its third year as the official Muchachos truck, Maestas recently quit his full-time information technology job for a part-time position at Archrival while he pursues more full-time work with it.

Given how successful his business has become, he is currently shopping around to open a small brick-and-mortar storefront.

"We can take that leap and say we’re doing well enough with the food that I can devote more time to it," Maestas said.

And Maestas isn't taking the leap without looking. A self-described research geek, Maestas carefully tracks how many people he serves and how much food he sells in any given service period.

"When you’re as small as we are, it’s all about maximizing profitability," he said.

It's not exactly difficult to track though, given that Muchachos sells out almost everywhere it goes.

On any given Farmer's Market in the Haymarket, Maestas serves up to 120 customers. Some of that, Maestas said, comes from repeat customers who line up week after week to order tacos and say hello.

"I got a review online and someone said the food was so amazing, but the people are what made it taste even better," he said. "That's what I’m searching for. I want people to enjoy not just the food, but the small amount of time we exchange."

And despite it now being his full-time job, Maestas said it never gives him the hassles and stresses of an office job.

"I don’t feel like I work. I'll have a beer when I smoke meat and it’s not very overwhelming at all," he said.

The extra time has allowed him to spend time with his children and focus on perfecting the recipes he's created.

"I had left the IT world behind a little bit and now I'm chasing the dream," he said.

And in that chase, he said he wants to enjoy the nostalgic feelings that started him on his food truck lifestyle.

"I always enjoyed cooking for my family and rolling tortillas with my grandparents, those were things I always enjoyed doing but never thought of it was a career," Maestas said. "It’s gotten us to a point where I can take that risk."

Lincoln food trucks and mobile dining options

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.


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