Under the giant red lipstick mark, the marquee of Boca Tacos y Tequila reads: “Our Salsas Are Hotter Than Your Wife.” That is much like the restaurant itself: clever, spicy, and always ready to take risks. The logo, décor, and menu are all the creations of chef and owner Maria José Mazon.
You might have seen Boca Tacos y Tequila when driving down Speedway Boulevard and dismissed it as just another taco joint serving what most Americans think of as Mexican tacos— hard shells, ground beef, sour cream, yellow cheese—but you would be wrong.
“People think because it’s Mexican food that it can’t be elegant,” Mazon says. “I respect Mexican food. I play with color and texture. I make food an art.”
At Boca Tacos, Mazon, 33, makes 25 varieties of tacos but none of them are what she calls “non-Mexican tacos.” Last week, a customer came in asking, “Do you guys have any ‘regular tacos’?” Both she and the server knew what the customer meant and both felt bothered at the suggestion that yellow cheese and ground beef tacos are more authentic than the ones she creates. In that way, Mazon’s menu is not only a gourmet experience but a political act.
“In a border town like Tucson, it can be all tacos with yellow cheese sour cream. [Then] there are the sombreros, the sugar skulls. People don’t always know what is real [Mexican culture],” she says. As we talk, Mazon chops cabbage. She chops a lot of cabbage, since every taco is topped with cabbage and guacamole. She explains, “That is the traditional way.”
And she knows something about tradition. Although her mother was a good cook, Mazon credits her nanny as one of her early culinary influences, as she used to watch her make tortillas from scratch. But Mazon learned her chopping skills from a hot dog vendor with a stand just down the street from her childhood home in Sonora. She was mesmerized at how flawlessly and quickly he chopped and told him so. He offered to teach her. Besides a few formative moments like these, Mazon is self-taught, having used television cooking shows and cookbooks to learn culinary techniques and recipes.
While Mazon was born in Tucson, she grew up in Navojoa, Sonora, leaving to attend high school back in Tucson when she was 15 years old. She began her culinary career 10 years ago, as a server at Papagayo Cantina Mexican restaurant, where she suggested the restaurant start offering specials. “The first thing I cooked was a seafood soup. After that, one thing led to another.” After she started Para y Bar, a taco stand and catering company, in May of 2010, Mazon opened Boca Tacos y Tequila with a business partner, taking over the place entirely two years ago. The restaurant’s name comes from a beach in her Sonoran hometown called Las Bocas. On the wall read the words: “From my Kitchen to your Boca.”
Boca Tacos stand out because of their inventive flavor profiles, all born out of the Mazon’s creative mind. “It’s something I’ve always been confident in,” she says. “Ideas for flavors come to me. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, I make it work.”
Like the time she ran out of salsa and looked over to her personal groceries from Food City. “I had grabbed some bananas and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I grilled them up and made them into a salsa.” People may come for the tacos, but they return because of the salsas. On the day I visit her salsas include: blueberry, balsamic vinaigrette, basil and serrano peppers; garbanzo kidney beans, barley, and rosemary; and rosemary, horseradish, and poblano peppers. Mazon hadn’t intended to make wildly eclectic salsas but calls them, like her career as a chef, a happy accident. “When you don’t know what is going to happen, that’s when there are so many possibilities.”
“It’s been a week of Mondays, you know what I mean?” Chef Mazon says on Friday afternoon as she paces through the kitchen. Although the restaurant has proved more work than she imagined, Mazon is grateful for the community she’s convened within its walls. She’s known her manager and right hand man, Eddie Gil, for seven years. She calls the five young men who work alongside her “my kids” and talks endearingly about their interests. One is a music major who totes his guitar case into the kitchen; another she calls her “hipster,” to his protest. Pointing in the direction of another employee, she says, “When he came here, he had zero cooking experience. He’s been working here a year and knows it all. It’s about the chance, learning little by little. I would love to teach the younger generation how to cook.”
Her 5-year-old son, René, and girlfriend, Lily, are regular fixtures at the restaurant. When René wants a treat, he can bus the tables at 75 cents a table to earn it. Lily also often comes in to help, on this particular afternoon bringing the staff Klondike bars and refilling utensils and napkins at all the tables. This kind of loyalty and commitment is also true of regular customers. “Some of the customers here since the beginning are like best friends. When we are busy, they’ll stop eating and help bus tables. If I needed their help and called them, they would drop everything and come down here.”
Even her dad, who lives in Mexico, helps support her by sending her the restaurant’s most important ingredient: Yavaros salt. “It’s white gold,” Mazon says. Her dad, who attended the University of Arizona and is a die-hard Wildcats fan, also keeps her up-to-date on the UA game schedule.
He remembers the restaurant when it was a UA dive called Greasy Tony’s. She says, “Their motto was ‘Extra Grease, No Extra Charge.’” It took her 14 months to get the restaurant up to code after Greasy Tony’s tenure.
Boca Tacos has not been without controversy. For a weekly exotic meat night, Mazon has made tacos comprised of silkworms, ostrich, blood sausage, kangaroo, and rattlesnakes. A few years ago, a Facebook group called for a ban of the restaurant when lion tacos were planned for one Exotic Wednesday. Mazon promptly cancelled the scheduled menu.
Mazon listens to her patrons and tries to meet their needs and suggestions. One accommodation is the offering of Taco Lite: instead of being served on a tortilla, every taco can be served on a cabbage leaf instead. Mazon does her best to support local businesses. Boca’s tortillas come from Alejandro’s Tortilla Factory, the carne asada is from Taqueria Jenny’s, and the exotic meats come from Dickman’s Meat & Deli.
Recently, she began ordering produce from Sunizona Family Farms allowing for organic salsas.
As a child, Mazon aspired to work in radio or photography. A keen observer, Mazon says, “I call myself a people-watcher. My girlfriend calls me a people-starer.”
But she was in the restaurant business for years before she realized that it was her passion. In 2011, Mazon competed against another female chef at Iron Chef Tucson during Tucson Meet Yourself. She was in the zone, chopping and sautéing and mixing and suddenly, she thought to herself, “Hey! I’m really good at this.” She ended up winning the contest, an external validation of her talent, but she says it was more the process than the result that inspired her: “I realized that awards don’t make me something, I make me something.” After that contest, Mazon poured her heart into her work.
“How you all doing today?” Mazon calls from the kitchen to customers just entering. Although she doesn’t know all regulars by name, she remembers their faces and orders. “I’ll think, Oh that’s the two-carne-asada guy.”
She appreciates the diversity of her customers: undergrads and graduate students, tourists, artists, singers, people who work nearby or walk by. The restaurant has been consistently busy lately, which excites Mazon. “I don’t question the busy. When there is a sale on jeans, you don’t question the sale, you buy the jeans,” she says.
Mazon would like to open more Boca Tacos, creating a family-owned franchise. She’s also dreaming up a Mexican fine-dining restaurant with just 10 tables and 10 items on the menu. “I have the name and the menu already here,” Mazon says pointing to her head. The bandanna across her forehead is emblazoned with the restaurant’s signature red lipstick mark.
For now though, she is content to be busy, doing what she loves most: inventing, cooking, and delivering high-quality, fresh, and flavorful tacos to her customers. “They say if you are open five years, you are good. You are not going to close.” May marks Boca Tacos y Tequila’s four-year anniversary.
On the day I visit, I try the calabacitas and pescado tacos. The calabacitas taco is spicy and hearty, the pescado taco is crispy without being heavy. When I compliment her on her barley, garbanzo, and kidney bean salsa, she tells me of her recent obsession with barley. “It adds texture to the taco. I love playing with texture in salsas.”
“It seems the possibilities are endless,” I say.
“Yes, infinite possibilities,” Mazon responds, and then adds: “It’s like Buzz Lightyear, ‘To infinity and beyond.’” ✜
Boca Tacos. 828 E. Speedway Blvd. 520.777.8134.
Lisa O’Neill originally hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her favorite food to make is lemon icebox pie.