In mid-September 2020 I reviewed a “fine Mexican cuisine” food truck named Tobala. At the time, chef Fernando Trancoso led the brand, and I commended his spectacular carnitas tacos while rating the pastor as a work in progress considering the $3.50-per-taco rate.
Fast-forward to mid-November and I see hype around another new Mexican truck named Tepex, so I venture to catch them at a Taco Tuesday Metric Brewing stop. As I’m ordering, I meet chef Trancoso in person this time, with him quickly informing me that he’s split from his partner at Tobala to go out on his own. His pricing appears to have come down just a bit, while the menu retains a gourmet focus informed by his time in front-house management in the Santa Fe fine dining scene.
Trancoso also knows wine and spirits well after 21 years in the restaurant industry. He worked for celeb chef and regular James Beard Award finalist Martín Rios at Restaurant Martín and Fernando Olea at Sazón, which holds four AAA diamonds. He says he knew he wanted to eventually bridge to back of the house and cook, and his style pays tribute to those chefs with mindfulness toward technique and presentation. Tepex is short for Tepextate, a coveted, high altitude agave plant that takes more than 25 years to blossom. Trancoso hopes to grow Tepex into a brick-and-mortar locally that will revolve around mezcal.
“Food and wine is my life,” he says, describing growing up in Aguascalientes, north of Guadalajara, where at age 12 he learned to prepare meats and pickle vegetables. He says he was influenced by the states around him, and hopes to show diners a slightly different face of Mexican food. After moving from Santa Fe to Denver and working in banquet management for a couple years, he relocated to the Springs, having researched our market and seen promise.
Nothing’s canned or frozen at Tepex, he insists, and offering one example of putting in the effort, his mole sauce contains 27 ingredients. Interestingly, one of them isn’t chicken stock; he uses vegetable stock instead so he can offer vegetarian and vegan options. Our vegetarian Enfrijoladas Negras hold a clean-flavored mix of sautéed squash, corn and mushrooms inside corn tortilla wraps topped in inky black beans and bright pickled onions, bell peppers and carrots. Mole tacos as a nightly special are beautifully executed, with a not-too-sweet or -chocolaty, sesame-seed-flecked sauce bearing a nice balance of the aromatics like anise and other foundational spices. A slight twist: Most of us are used to seeing mole chicken plates, but these tacos pair the traditional sauce with tender pork. I ask Trancoso what wine he’d pair his mole with at home (hint-hint for to-go orders), and he suggests a northern Rhône grape, perhaps a Merlot, or something Syrah-based “to complement the complexity of mole, with rustic elements.”
I revisit his carnitas, this time in the form of sliders on soft, puffy buns lightly charred inside. Cabbage and garnishing pickled veggies add crunch, and this time the meat’s a little drier and less oily (though he stores it in lard), but a side of light tomatillo-serrano sauce moistens bites with less heat than jalapeños (a consistency measure he takes). I try to order the “Adventurous Taco,” which amounts to a chef’s choice, but he tells me he’s run out of beef cheeks, that night’s challenge ingredient.
So he steers me to his lengua tacos, again presented with a stylized twist. Not only does he peel the tough skin off the beef tongue and shred versus cube it, which I find more common locally, but he braises the meat with a custom Indian spice blend that includes coriander, clove, cumin and marjoram for more spice (not heat) than typically seen. Bites finish tangy and unctuous.
And that leaves the best for last: phenomenal birria tacos that are so epic we reorder a to-go bowl of birria stew. Regionally, goat and lamb are often meats of choice for birria, but beef’s common too, and what Trancoso’s utilizing here, citing the stew as a festive, special occasion dish back home. He tried out a home-style version with clear broth that didn’t sell well on the truck, so after a couple days he added chile sauce to it, which somehow made it more approachable to patrons, he says.
Now, he starts with big hunks of beef shoulder that he salts and rests before adding the chile sauce and water and braising for eight hours. The sauce contains mulato and ancho peppers (both poblano variants), guajillo (dried mirasols) and morita peppers (smoked mature jalapeños). Trancoso leaves the veins and seeds in the morita for more heat. Spices include garlic, thyme, clove, cinnamon and ginger. The pulled meat alone on a soft corn tortilla with a little melted Jack cheese is delicious, with garnishing cilantro and pickled veggies plus a lime squeeze. But the plate’s served with a side of the braising liquid, au jus-style, for dipping, plus a side ramekin of roasted tomato and morita pepper salsa for smoky heat redundancy. All together it’s a symphony of layered chile-flavor joy accenting the delicate stew meat.
When ordered as a stew, that same braising liquid becomes the soup, richly oily and deep with earthy chile essence, the stringy meat waiting to be fished from the bowl’s bottom. It’s a warming broth with hearty filler, and if you do get the birria (also offered as a torta sandwich) to-go and are seeking another chef’s choice wine pairing, Trancoso recommends a Pinot Noir, Tempranillo or Sangiovese: something medium bodied and not too tannic so as not to overpower the dish’s subtle spices.
In that September review of Tobala, I’d concluded by saying “if you call yourself ‘fine’ [Mexican Cuisine] and charge accordingly, you need to be fully on point.” It’s rare to be following up so soon after — by accident — and discover that mission’s been accomplished. Tepex indeed takes familiar-enough Mexican fare and finds little touches that amount to better-than renditions. I’m excited for a future in which Trancoso’s brick-and-mortar vision becomes reality, because wine pairings aside, I can only imagine how good that birria’s going to taste next to a fine mezcal. (Or, you know ... I could order some soon to-go and find out.)