People line up to get free tacos at El Rey Taquiza Artesanal. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

In a neighborhood full of Mexican food, with tacos and burritos sold on every corner, new business owners Jose Mendoza and Pepe Valadez had to make a splash with their entrance on the Mission District food scene. 

By Thursday afternoon, the news was out: Fee tacos could be found during Labor Day weekend at El Rey Taquiza Artesanal, a new taqueria on Mission Street between 20th and 21st streets.

“Never in our lives did we expect ever to have such an introduction, you know, to the city, to the Mission,” said Mendoza, 29, on Tuesday. His team announced the official opening for Friday, and expected Thursday would be more of a friends-and-family soft opening. 

But the lines began to form, and people kept coming all weekend. 

“We had been practicing for a couple of days, but it’s a lot different making tacos for us, for like 15 people, as opposed to hundreds of people,” said Mendoza.

He and Valadez estimated that they gave out about 1,200 free tacos a day on Thursday and Friday, when they had a two-free-tacos-per-person deal that drew swarms. 

By Saturday, they started limiting customers to one free taco apiece. 

As inevitable issues arose, the new business owners had to be quick on their feet and make other adjustments. 

On Thursday, their internet service went out for eight minutes. Mendoza recalled being in the kitchen and realizing that the line was moving, but no orders were coming in. 

He went to check what was happening, and suddenly a dozen orders popped out at once. A scene vaguely reminiscent of the online order fiasco in The Bear — in which the computer suddenly spits out several dozen orders — broke out. 

On Friday at 12:24 p.m. the line was out the door. Photo by Lydia Chávez

“It could have been anywhere from maybe 80 tacos, 100 tacos altogether, and with more people in the line and more people ordering,” Mendoza said. 

Valadez said that was a stressful moment, but he came out from behind the counter to offer the eagerly waiting customers aguas frescas, margaritas, and palomas on the house. 

“We gave it away happily, because we understood it was our part,” Valadez said. “We didn’t want anybody to leave unhappy. So, having a drink in their hand was a big help.” 

Making sure their customers were happy and taken care of was the ultimate goal of the weekend for the pair, a former Mission High School soccer coach (Valadez) and his student player, Mendoza, whose family also owns nearby Fiesta Bowls. 

Mendoza and Valadez were unbothered by the small number of people that flouted the rules and came back for extra tacos. When a confused vegetarian came in and realized there were few options for her, Valadez offered her a free meatless taco. She loved it and ordered more, he said. 

And when there were problems, they tried to deal with them head-on, with a smile. 

“Our kitchen isn’t the biggest kitchen, so we had the taqueros kind of bumping into the ladies that do the guisados. So we were throwing elbows,” Mendoza chuckled, remembering the first day in business. “But it was fun.”  

Though Mendoza wanted everyone to try their whole menu during opening weekend, it was too difficult to serve up guisado tacos (made with slow-cooked meats in a stew) alongside the street tacos. So on Friday, they launched their regular schedule earlier than planned: Guisado tacos in the daytime, and street tacos in the evenings. 

“I think being honest and being straight up with people, they’re going to see who we are,” Valadez said. 

Some customers faced long waits, and ingredients ran out at a couple of inopportune times, meaning the team had to scramble to offer customers replacements.

Understandably, by Monday, the team was also running low on energy: Mendoza said he and his employees had been coming in as early as 7:30 a.m. and staying well past the 11 p.m. closing time. Four days and thousands of tacos after opening, despite lots of help from friends and family helping to run plates to tables, the El Rey team decided to take their first holiday on Labor Day. 

By Tuesday, they were back at it, greeting new and familiar customers, and discussing their plans for their nascent salsa bar and the “crazy tacos and quesadillas” they plan to feature. 

And the first reviews are in: Already, El Rey Taquiza Artesanal has four and a half stars on Yelp, and 4.8 stars on Google. 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. We love this place! Owners and everyone working there are wonderful and the tacos are fantastic! Tried the free ones then brought friends to buy them tacos the next day, all delicious and a fun place to eat.