The Secret's Out!
At the brazenly named Bad Ass Street Tacos, the couple offer such Yucatan specialties as cochinita pibil, poc-chuc and lechon—all marinated and slowly roasted pork dishes. Those and other meat choices are served open-faced in soft corn tortillas, in the simple style of a Mexican street vendor.
The Lopezes’ culinary venture began about four years ago, while Manuel was working as a manager at the T.O. Meat Locker, a long-running barbecue joint on the boulevard.
Manuel came up with the idea of selling tacos on the patio four nights a week (Thursday to Sunday) after the restaurant closed. The owners approved, although Manuel’s better half was skeptical at first. “I didn’t know if it was a good idea,” Julissa said. “I’d never seen anyone selling street tacos on the boulevard.”
Still, Julissa pitched in with her fresh salsa recipes, and on the first night of operation, Manuel sold $75 worth of tacos, mostly to family and friends. Soon, word of the weekend-night taco fix spread around town, and Manuel began to build a following.
“It was just rooted in community members telling their friends and family to try it out,” said Shawn Moradian, president of the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Business Improvement District. “Unless you were driving the boulevard at 8 or 9 p.m. on a weekend, you wouldn’t know it was there.”
After two years, the taco business was so popular that it was hard to keep up with demand. Lines of customers would spill out of the T.O. Meat Locker patio and down the sidewalk. Manuel realized he needed full-time support from Julissa, who was working as a manager at The Habit in Agoura Hills at the time.
“He told me one night, ‘I think I need your help with the tacos. We’re getting very busy,” Julissa said. “I had to resign from my job, and I came aboard.”
As their nighttime operation outgrew the Meat Locker patio, and as customers continued to ask for lunch availability, the next step for the couple was to launch their own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Opportunity came knocking when the nearby Dayne’s hot dog and pizza shop closed. Moradian, the property owner, decided to take a chance on the Lopezes, having seen their success firsthand at the Meat Locker location.
“I patronized their taco shop for years before they became my tenant,” Moradian said. “I think they’re a perfect fit. We want all types of businesses on the boulevard, especially hip ones.”
The Lopezes opened the Bad Ass Street Tacos restaurant in October, but permitting issues led the Ventura County Environmental Health Division to shut it down after just a week.
“We had to close and start from the beginning to take care of all these requirements, which we did,” said Julissa, who has managed restaurants for more than 20 years but had never opened one. “It’s an experience that I wouldn’t change. I learned so much about the foundation of the business, of how to accomplish your dream.”
The key issue, Julissa said, was that the kitchen needed to be adjusted and upgraded. After the county cleared the restaurant with a permit Dec. 14, Bad Ass Street Tacos reopened, and customers quickly returned.
On a recent weekday evening around 4 p.m., the dinner crowd began trickling in. Some feasted on tacos and chicken chopped salads in the cozy indoor dining space. Other patrons braved the chilly weather outside and dined at long tables on the spacious patio. Julissa said that dinnertime on weekends and lunchtime on weekdays tend to bring in the biggest rushes of customers, a mix of old and new faces.
“It’s pretty busy for lunch. The line goes around (the front of the building) and down the ramp,” she said. “Dinnertime is customers from the Meat Locker. I used to know everybody over there. We’re like family.”
In a stricter sense of the term, the family business also employs the couple’s daughter, Aimee, 20, who is a manager in training.
Manuel said the family feel of the operation, as much as the allure of authentic street tacos, has been a key factor in customers’ loyalty.
“That’s what they love . . . and I want to keep it that way,” Manuel said.