Play It By Ear: How Christian Pineda Went From Architect to Taco Master

Everybody wants to find a way to get paid to do what they love. But the path to making a living off your passions is often an unscripted journey filled with unexpected twists and turns, reinventions and surprises. After all, it’s estimated that our generation will change jobs 15-20 times over the course of our lifetimes. In our Play it By Ear series, we’re taking a look at the career 180s that got some of the young creatives we’re excited about where they are today.

When Los Tacos No. 1 opened at New York City’s Chelsea Market in 2013, it quickly became a haven for all the Mexican and West Coast expats pining for authentic tacos in downtown Manhattan. The gleaming stand, tucked away in the corner of the market, has every detail down pat – the jugs of horchata, jamaica and tamarindo, the corrugated metal reminiscent of a street food stand, the lettering advertising asada, pollo, and adobada – all of it transports you to Mexico. But it turns out the branding and design was the easy part for Christian Pineda, the San Diego-born and raised brain behind Los Tacos No. 1.

It was figuring out how to transition from a career in architecture to his passion for serving up tacos that was trickier.

We caught up with the award-winning taquero to learn how he went from building actual buildings to building tacos.

We’re huge fans of your tacos adobadas. How did you come up with the concept for Los Tacos No. 1?
It started almost as soon as we moved to New York. I noticed there was no real street food in the city. [My partner] Tyler and I were both architects in a firm here. We were getting slammed at work and working for little money, so we had to look for cheap and cheerful options to eat. But when I started looking for a cheap Mexican quick fix joint close to us, we always came up short. We decided to develop the business plan for a Tijuana-style taquería while still working at the firm. After some time, we got fed up and decided to put all our efforts into the business plan for what would soon become Los Tacos No. 1.

Tell us a bit about the process.
Well my business partners and I had the idea. So, we took a trip to Tijuana. They had already been there, but I wanted to show them my usual spots. After speaking to the owners, they opened the doors so we could learn the day-to-day operations. They were very guarded about their recipes, but generally were very friendly about letting us have a close look at their businesses. From slicing the meat, marinating it in the adobo, putting the trompo [rotating spit] together and even chopping the vegetables, we had to learn everything.

When we got back to New York, we started experimenting with the marinades for the adobada. We tried like 18 different marinades, until we finally narrowed it down to three. After trying it out with close friends and relatives we finally focused on the one we use every day. After this process, the marinades for the chicken and carne asada were a little simpler.

Do you think you perfected it?
I’m a perfectionist and very critical of my own work. I always want the best and strive to achieve perfection. I guess that’s why I’m an architect. But I do think we did a pretty good job. We incorporated the family recipe for salsas; everyone had an opinion on those. It had to be precise – if not, it would have been almost disrespectful [laughs]. Another obstacle we had to overcome was the tortilla factor. The tortilla is a very important part of the taco. We couldn’t find a distributor we were happy with here, so I went back to learn the nixtamalization process – how to make tortillas from scratch, boiling the corn with limestone, separating the shells, grinding the kernels, adding the precise amount of water, and then pressing the masa for the corn tortillas.

The flour tortillas were also a challenge. Most flour tortillas here are made either with oil or vegetable shortening. In the north of Mexico, we eat flour tortillas more than in central or southern Mexico, and we make them completely different. So, I had to replicate that flavor. We learned to make our flour tortillas with pork lard, which gives the tortilla much more flavor and flexibility, and adds flavor to the taco or quesadilla. We wanted a real Sonora tortilla.

What was your reaction the day you opened?
It was the worst and the best part. Before we even opened, there was already a buzz about us. And the day of there was such a huge line that we couldn’t even stop to contemplate it; we were just grinding it out one customer at a time, trying to catch up and serving as fast as we could while still trying to deliver what our new customers were expecting to taste. It was a strange kind of happiness, I guess.

Our employees were going crazy that day. We were three partners working the line and seven employees: the three partners, our grill guy, our cashier, and the tortillera.

We were all learning, because not all Mexicans are taqueros or tortilleras, and we were all learning every day, when we started. Now, they are masters of their craft!

So, now that some time has passed after the opening, and you have time to contemplate your creation, what do you and your partners think?
We were happy, don’t get me wrong. But now that we are out of the kitchen and can see things a bit from the outside, we are really proud of what we created. We really weren’t able to contemplate it as much from within. Now we try to be vigilant of the consistency, quality, service, and most of all, that the flavor remains there. Our hard work is really paying off.

Are you still a fan of adobada?
I don’t get tired of it. I don’t think I ever will; I love it.

Are you still working as an architect?
As a matter of fact, I am. I have some projects in Tijuana in the works and doing the two things I love, I couldn’t be happier.

Any plans for a second location?
We have it in the books to open a second location before the end of this year and maybe a third next year. We are also looking into opening a marisquería here at Chelsea Market, with Baja California-style seafood.