Given his Mexican heritage and his origins in the Los Angeles area, Salvador Zavala has a giant head start when it comes to appreciating authentic tacos. We joke with him about how we grew up eating Taco Bell, and hadn't tried an authentic taco until embarrassingly recently. Zavala, of course, serves the real thing. He says, "They're the kind that you would probably get off of a taco stand in Tijuana down in Baja Mexico: small corn tortillas, and usually a choice of carne asada, marinated chicken, or marinated pork, which is known as al pastor. It's topped off with chopped onions, cilantro, lime, and salsa." They sound delightful, but we can't resist asking if some people crab at him, "Where's my cheese?"
He laughs and says, "I've had people walk away from me when they hear there's no cheese. I was doing an event at the Dearborn Historical Museum and people would come up and look at the menu and say, 'Where's the sour cream and cheese?' 'Sorry ... only cilantro and lime.' And they'd walk away without ordering anything."
An accountant by trade, he moved to our area a decade ago, and now lives in Dearborn's Ford Homes Historic District. In addition to his work as a CPA for a nonprofit organization, the food bug bit Zavala hard a few years ago, and he decided to parlay that passion into a profitable business. It all started with him trying to show his buddies what the real thing tastes like.
He says, "I have friends over who grew up on Taco Bell. They'd never had the real tacos before, and they'd say it was amazing. So that kind of gave me the confidence to keep cooking. Then, when my neighborhood in Dearborn had its annual Edison Street Sale, I decided to set up my grill and sell tacos. I had a neighbor across the street who baked German pretzels, so I figured, 'What the hay? I'll give this a try.' I bought about eight pounds of meat and I must've sold out in, like, 20 minutes."
Zavala wouldn't have gotten far without the help of a membership in FoodLab Detroit and Detroit Kitchen Connect. "Thanks to them," he says, "I got licensed out of a commercial kitchen in Southwest Detroit. I got my ServSafe certificate."
His first professional grilling gig was for a party his friend threw for his wife, who'd just graduated from medical school, and, in good weather, that's how he proceeded. "I would take the grill into, say, a backyard and cook right in front of you," he says. "It was kind of like a food truck, but I didn't have the truck. I'd bring a flat-top grill with steam pans on the side, set up a canopy, and it's basically a pop-up taco stand like you would see in Mexico. That was kind of a novelty that people really liked.
"As soon as winter came, obviously I couldn't do that and I started changing my practice where I'd actually cook the food in a commercial kitchen. Or sometimes people would want a taco bar where I'd cook the meat and put it in warmers and heat up tortillas and they'd make their own tacos."
Ultimately, Zavala found another way to keep his food business going all year long with a shelf-stable product that poses fewer regulatory hurdles: guacamole.
Zavala says, "I was selling it in the winter at Eastern Market and it went over really well. I sold out every time I was there — sometimes a lot quicker than I wanted to. So far it's been a big hit. I like it, but I'm surprised at how quickly it took off."
Zavala says customers prefer Chavo's Tacos' guacamole because of its chunkiness, the kick that it has, and the way it tends to stay green longer than others."
He chalks that final quality up to a trade secret. And it isn't keeping the seeds in the dip, Zavala says, "Because you'd have big seeds in your brown guacamole — because it doesn't work; I've tried it!"
Chavo's Tacos' guacamole can be ordered via facebook.com/ChavosTacos. It's $4 for an 8-ounce container. and $6 for a 12-ounce container.