RICHMOND, Va. -- Hours before the first customer arrives TBT El Gallo is stirring on the outside and in. It is the restless quiet before the storm. The slicing, dicing, and soaking all happen before the doors of the Richmond restaurant open at 5 p.m.
Prep time is pressure filled.
“If there is no chaos in the kitchen it doesn't feel like a kitchen so I kind of enjoy that a lot,” Carlos Ordaz-Nunez said. "It is pretty intense. It feels like a kitchen and I love that."
The meticulous chef with an outsized personality paces till showtime.
“The minute the first ticket prints out I’m like, ‘OK. We’re good. Let’s get to work,'” Carlos said.
One year ago the 28-year-old was selling his tacos on a folding table and grill at farmer’s markets and Richmond breweries.
“I was so nervous to open,” he said. “We went from like a one-weekend spot to like four or five or six pop-ups a week.”
Last spring he added bricks and mortar to his menu.
“I want to make Mexican food that represents me. And that is what the taqueria is,” he said.
Soon after opening his spot near Carytown, Carlos discovered the pitfalls of ownership.
“My wife was super nice about taking our life savings and pouring it into this spot,” he said. “Then we ran out of money. Almost within 45 minutes, I ran out of money.”
But Carlos wasn’t fazed.
"No one is going to work harder than me. And no one is going to be more passionate than me in making this a reality,” he said.
In less than a year Carlos has gained a loyal following.
“I get hungry walking a block away from here. I can feel it. It is great,” customer Kyle Lewis said.
Carlos, who was raised in Mechanicsville, still can’t digest his dream is coming true.
Born in Mexico, Carlos’ family moved to Virginia to farm.
“I grew up loving America,” he said. “The thing I love about America is that it rewards hard work.”
His parents served as role models.
“Basically I watched my parents work insanely crazy hours to try and build something of themselves to start their own business,” he said.
Carlos’ offerings stay true to his Mexican roots, with a twist.
“I see young Latin people bring their parents here and they’re like super confused. ‘What are you doing? What is happening here like,’” Carlos said.
With orders pouring in Carlos inspires his colleagues like Adres Santamaria.
“For him to do this in a year is just crazy. It is awesome,” Andres said. “He constantly gives us affirmations. You don’t get that a lot of places.”
“We all over-communicate and work as a team,” Carlos said.
Customers are eating up TBT through word of mouth and a growing social media presence.
“This is my first time. I actually saw it on Instagram,” new customer Amanda Weiner said. “When you scroll through their feed your mouth starts to water and we were here the exact same day.”
Some patrons like Joe and Jen Romero drove their appetite from afar.
“We came about a little over an hour,” Jen said.
“This is our first time," Joe added. "We’re coming from Gloucester [and drove] just to check this place out.”
This is all music to Carlos’ ears.
“We’re still growing fast,” Carlos said. “It is amazing that people are so into this and I am so humbled by it."
Carlos Ordaz-Nunez a chef with an insatiable appetite for success is savoring every single bite.
“I’m going to make immigrant dreams into the American dream because at the end of the day that is the American Dream and I love that,” Carlos said. “And that is why I love being Mexican American. Because I get the best of both worlds.”
Carlos’ TBT El Gallo is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The restaurant is located in the Fan on Cary Street.
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