Tacos Chukis does one thing and does it really well
By Bao Nguyen
February 27, 2018
I can clearly remember my first time having tacos at Tacos Chukis. It was on a date several years ago – my second or third – with a Latina who I was really hoping to impress with…good tacos. Original, I know.
A quick Google search returned a name I hadn’t heard before but the few reviews available were promising. Their tone gave the place a mysterious persona, as if people wanted to keep it to themselves but they just can’t because the secret is so juicy. Chasing our noses in circles around Capitol Hill that night, my date and I finally stumbled into a literal hole in the wall. Back then, Tacos Chukis had only one location nestled deep inside a nondescript building on Broadway that also housed, among other businesses, a nail salon, a tattoo parlor, and a book shop. Finding the taqueria itself was like uncovering one of Seattle’s long kept secrets.
I can’t recall much else about that night except for our time at Tacos Chukis, talking and laughing over food and beer. Maybe it was the magic in the air or maybe it was the perfectly seasoned adobada – probably a combination of both – but I remember leaving feeling quite satisfied, mind and body. Isn’t that what cooking is about?
Today, Tacos Chukis, the brainchild of Roberto Salmeron, has three locations and there’s already talk of a fourth on the way. Its success is apparent but that has never been due to meticulous and deliberate planning. Going with the flow seems to be Roberto’s way of doing things. And why not? He’s good at it.
“Honestly, I have no idea why I did it,” Roberto said to me. “I can’t think back and remember the reason behind it.”
He wasn’t talking about Tacos Chukis but instead was referring to the story of how he came to take a bicycle trip from Seattle to his family home in Tijuana, Mexico. It serves as a perfect prelude to his journey as a restaurant owner.
At the end of five years in Seattle studying at the University of Washington, Roberto graduated broke and desperately missing home. Unable to afford a plane ticket, he decided to buy a bike and, following two weeks of online research where he found a bunch of horror stories, he “just left.”
It was a struggle at first; he needed to stop every ten minutes to catch his breath. But by the second leg of the trip, once his thighs “had become massive,” he was breezing through and having fun. The Oregon coast energized him with its beautiful coastline and, at times, he could look over his shoulder to see the crashing waves hundreds of feet below.
Reaching Tijuana a month later, he sought out the food he had been missing for so long: tacos. It was here that the idea for Tacos Chukis was planted – “chukis” is a local slang meaning “good” or “cool.” Like his bike trip, he had no clue what he was getting into.
With a slight smile that conveys both pride and incredulity, he says that up until that point he had never worked in a restaurant. But when he came back, he met his future business partner, Jilo Hernandez, who had done some work in Mexico City.
“We tried some stuff and Jilo came up with the recipe for the adobada pork. I tasted it and I knew that we had a winner.”
In their first year of opening Tacos Chukis, Roberto and Jilo worked 12 hours a day, every single day. Their job was made more difficult by the fact that there was no mentor, no network of people who could guide them. Roberto taught himself plumbing, carpentry, payroll, and management, just to name a few. A lot of time was spent second-guessing his decisions and excessively worrying about what he did.
Fortunately, there were no catastrophic failures and, with the help of friends and family – Roberto’s mom and brothers are all involved in the business – tacos started flying off counter.
Most fans of Tacos Chukis will comment on how “authentic” the food is but to Roberto, it was never about authenticity in the way that some people might get hung up over. What’s important to him is the “essence of what makes something what it is.” With its core qualities preserved, anything can be transferred and molded and still retain its greatness.
The essence of Tacos Chukis, according to Roberto, is specialization: doing one thing and doing it really well.
“In Mexico, if you want pozole, you go to this one place. If you want birria, you go to this one place,” he explains. “I just love that dedication to one art form. You get in and you know what you’re going for. That’s what I brought from Tijuana.”
Thus the menu at Tacos Chukis remains sparse – for the best, in my opinion.
I caught up with Roberto at his latest taqueria which opened in December 2017. Located in the shadows of El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill, it is no longer a secret hole in the wall. Tacos Chukis is now a thriving example of the “American Dream” for immigrants like Roberto. In fact, this location, with two full glass walls, doesn’t even require complicated instructions to find. The sign is visible from the street.
With my plate of tacos, I sat down at one of the open tables. At first, it doesn’t feel quite the same as that night several years ago. The lighting, the noise, the empty seat across from me all signaled changes. But when I brought the overflowing tortilla up to my mouth and bit down, all those thoughts wisped away like steam from the freshly grilled meat. The essence that Roberto brought from Tijuana was still there. It might have gotten even better.
I finished the rest of my plate and left, feeling quite satisfied, like I was on that date several years ago.