Chef Maria Mazon believes that tacos – the real kind, not the type smothered in yellow cheese and sour cream – can serve as an introduction to deeply flavorful Mexican food. (Photos/Courtesy Maria Mazon)

Chef Spotlight: Maria Mazon shares why great tacos can represent the best of Mexican cuisine

Vitals: Maria Mazon was born in Tucson, Arizona but was raised in the Mexican state of Sonora, just seven hours away by car. Mazon eventually went to high school and attended college in Tucson, a town that’s home to the University of Arizona and plenty of cheap taco joints. Tucson seemed the ideal place to open a taco shop that would defy all expectations. Since opening Boca Tacos and Tequila three years ago, Mazon has earned numerous local accolades for raising the profile of Mexican food in street-fare form in a college town that considers fine Mexican cuisine to consist of hard-shell tacos and red chile enchiladas.

Experience: Mazon grew up under the watchful eye of her nanny, who cooked classic, labor-intensive Mexican meals. Mazon always loved food, but it wasn’t until she began a waitressing job during her time at Pima Community College in Tucson that she began to think of food as a way to transport to people to the Mexico of her youth. The restaurant offered Mexican-American fare and Mazon soon offered to cook up weekend specials like salmon enchiladas with green tomatillo sauce in order to help the restaurant expand its menu beyond quesadillas. The demand for Mazon’s cuisine steadily grew and by her late 20s, she was running an independent catering business. When a storefront in the heart of Tucson became available, she decided to open Boca Tacos and Tequila – what she calls a “modern taco stand.” With just four seats, the restaurant now serves more than 500 tacos a day and the 32-year-old self-taught chef has earned local fame as the winner of several area competitions including Tucson’s “Iron Chef.”

On receiving an unconventional culinary education: “Cooking is something that’s always been really natural for me. A few years ago I might have considered going to culinary school but I find that I’ve really absorbed the best technique naturally. For example, I learned knife skills from this guy who ran a Sonoran hot dog stand around the corner from my house. He used to serve tomato salsa with the finest chopped tomatoes I had ever seen, and one day when I was around 15 years old I just asked him, ‘how do you do that?’ So he taught me how to chop tomatoes and those are the skills I use to this day.”

Boca's "modern taco-stand" menu includes over 20 varieties of tacos and fresh salsas.

Boca’s “modern taco-stand” menu includes over 20 varieties of tacos and fresh salsas.

Why she considers tacos a cornerstone of Mexican cuisine: “Sonora is considered the taco capitol of Mexico – they are everywhere and very, very good. They’re considered a way to showcase the livestock industry here: rib eye, prime rib, hanger steak. You grill the meat with coarse salt and pepper, tuck slices of the meat into a corn tortilla and top with cabbage and guacamole sauce thinned out with milk or water. No yellow cheese or sour cream; basically the opposite of everything Americans think of as a taco. I think that tacos can showcase everything that’s wonderful about Mexican food: light, fresh and flavorful. Tacos are familiar enough that people are willing to come in – and once they try my food, my hope is that they leave with an understanding about what Mexican food really is.”

On the legacy she wants to leave her son: “My son is just four years old, and he’s with me at the restaurant whenever he’s not at school or being watched by my girlfriend. I would love to leave him a legacy of franchised restaurants one day, but all I really want is for him to be proud of me no matter what, knowing that I put my heart and soul into my work.”

The argument for pheasant and alligator tacos: “Every Wednesday I make a different type of taco with an exotic protein. I’ll use anything that moves: ostrich, rattle snake, python, kangaroo, silk worms and every single intestine and organ. I think that without forcing myself to experiment, I would become like Taco Bell and just fade into the landscape. I think it’s important for people to realize that tacos aren’t always hard shell with a side of sour cream. So by going off the cuff, I’m showing people that Mexican food isn’t necessarily what you expect it to be.”

Her secret weapon in the kitchen, revealed: “I can’t cook without music. Silence kills me! Music and flavor just go hand in hand, and allows the person cooking allow to have fun with what they do. I listen to everything except rap. I’m the only girl in my restaurant and I hate hearing music that has bad words or puts down women.”

On her not-so-secret guilty pleasure: “I just love the combination of salty and spicy and I have the ultimate go-to snack. I go to the Mexican store, head straight to the snack aisle and get every single chip there is. Then, when I get home, I make a mix of these chips in a bowl and top it with freshly-squeezed lime juice and Tapatio. After that, it’s me on the couch with that bowl and an episode of my favorite show, ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”

Here’s Mazon’s original recipe for a salsa that incorporates one of her favorite herbs, epazote. Considered a variety of Mexican oregano, Mazon loves it blended with mint for a herbaceous salsa that’s not unlike an Italian pesto. Top tacos with it, says Mazon, or use it as a wet rub or marinade.

Epazote Salsa

1 bunch epazote
1 bunch mint
1/3 white onion, chopped
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
3 garlic cloves, peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tea spoon of jugo maggi

Preparation: Blend all the ingredients till incorporated. Makes about two cups. Use immediately.

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