MORTAR’s Derrick Braziel on His Passion for Tacos Al Pastor

Illustration by Chris Danger

After five years of mentoring others and helping them start their own businesses, MORTAR’s Derrick Braziel thought it was time he pursue his own dream. He bought a taco cart, learned the ropes in a Mexican taqueria, and last fall was part of the Forty Thieves residency program with his Pata Roja Taqeria pop-up, where he slung tacos al pastor from the walk-up window on Sundays.

People know you mostly from your work at business accelerator MORTAR. What inspired you to get into the food business, and how long have you been working on this?

I’ve had dreams of opening a taco concept for a really long time. The thing that [convinced me] was a trip to Mexico City when I ate al pastor tacos for the first time. It made me excited, and I came back to Cincinnati to try to find the same style of al pastor tacos and I couldn’t. Given the work I had done with MORTAR for the past five years, I thought, Why couldn’t I take what I’ve learned from a business perspective and learn how to make al pastor tacos? So I went back to Mexico and took a cooking class, and I came back and bought the taco cart. That’s been the start of the business since last March. In December, I also got a chance to work in a taqueria for a month in Mexico City, so I was in the kitchen learning as much as I could about Mexican food, tacos, al pastor, so I’m really excited this year to take all I’ve learned and apply it to my business.

What did you learn and how did it change how you looked at what you were making?

Well, one, just learning how to work in a kitchen was one of the most important things. And two, learning the different flavors and spices and different menu items and where they came from. So we would go to the market and buy produce and meat and talk to the butchers and people who sold produce and [everything] in between, so I got the full picture of the how and why and the true basis of Mexican cuisine, as opposed to reading about it online. I got to actually see it and experience it.

What are tacos al pastor, exactly?

Tacos al pastor originated in central Mexico from Middle Eastern immigrants who originally brought over the roasted meat. They had lamb originally, but it was replaced by pork, and it’s marinated in different chiles and spices, and it has the same technique of spinning and roasting. [The meat] is sliced off a vertical spit and it’s combined with pineapple. Some taquerias will use cilantro and onions [as toppings]. I [do]—I feel it’s more traditional—others don’t.

Why were you so passionate about tacos al pastor, specifically?

Because it’s so delicious, for one. Two, al pastor I think in some ways is the soul food of Mexican cuisine. It reminds me of and connects me to Mexico, which is one of my favorite places to travel and visit. I can introduce Cincinnati to something I love so much, and so many people around the world love, and I think it’s a really interesting cultural exchange.

Could you tell me how you came up with the name Pata Roja?

It’s kind of funny. When I looked it up on Google [Translate], it meant “red leg”—because I didn’t speak Spanish at the time. I wanted to represent Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Reds with the Redlegs nickname. As I’ve been learning Spanish, I’ve learned that it actually means “red foot.” It’s funny to me because it shows my growing in Spanglish and that fusion of my experiences in Mexico and my connections to Cincinnati.

What was it like being a month-long resident pop-up as part of the Forty Thieves walk-up window incubator program?

It was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had. But I’ll say Dan Wright and the entire staff at Forty Thieves has been incredibly helpful, and they’ve been so supportive and taught me so much about food, about kitchens, about so much. I’m a better person as a result of it, and I think my food and my restaurant is better as a result of it. I’m really excited to go back [in the future].

What are your plans going forward after these pop-ups?

My initial plans are to do street food around Over-the-Rhine, so people can find me on the street selling tacos al pastor and my other tacos, and I’ll be doing catering. [After COVID-19 settles down], I’ll be doing that residency at Forty Thieves. From there I’ll continue doing pop-ups across the city focusing on lunchtime and late-night tacos.

How do you find the time to do all of this with all the work you do for MORTAR?

When you’re passionate about something, you find the time. MORTAR is something that is a passion of mine, and tacos are something that is a passion of mine. I don’t get a lot of sleep; I’m working a lot. But this is something I’m really passionate about and I make it work.

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