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Spicing up life in the West End
Tyler William Long and his taco truck bring joy to their loyal fans three nights a week.
An avocado-green truck parks on Parade Street, next to three stalls where local farmers are selling apples, oregano and chard.
Taqueria Pacifica is painted in red on the side. Below is a phone number for the Taco Hotline (781-truck). Inside, Tyler William Long -- hipster, surfer and chef extraordinaire -- cooks up some the freshest Tex-Mex fare this side of the San Fernando Valley.
Friends from the neighborhood show up in twos and threes to buy veggie tacos, chicken burritos and shrimp quesadillas.
Taryn and Jesse Vondoom, who live in Federal Hill, turn up with their dogs – a 4-pound chihuahua called Magnum and a 90-pound brindle greyhound called Zombie. "This is our weekly ritual," Taryn Vondoom says. "We go to the Decatur Tuesdays and come here for dinner on Thursday. It's so good and it's made by friends of ours."
"You're either eating next to a cheap bar or the farmers' market," Jesse Vondoom says. "It's location, location, location."
The taco truck, as the locals call it, is a neighborhood institution in the West End. Three nights a week, Long, who owns a rambling Victorian on Dexter Street, serves up his own brand of Mexican food at local farmers' markets and the occasional rock concert.
The nights always end at the Decatur bar, a hipster hangout on Luongo Square in the West End. The regulars call the taco hotline in advance to find out when the truck will arrive. On the rare occasions that Long doesn't make it to the Decatur, customers start to stress out, wondering what went wrong.
Long tries to keep things lively. If a customer shows up with a cheesy Magnum P.I. mustache, he gets a free burrito. The same is true if someone wears an animal costume.
"I just really like to watch people digging the food," he says. Long is a Seattle transplant. He married Allison Kyner, who went to the Rhode Island School of Design in the late '80s. The couple were living in Seattle during its transformation from a grunge-rock scene to a high-tech, yuppie playland.
"We wanted to buy a house and get things going," says Long, who is 36. "We got priced out of Seattle. It was getting so gross. We wanted more grit, so we moved here. It had to be close to the ocean, because I'm a surfer."
Two years ago, Long was diagnosed with cancer in his spinal column. The tumors had returned after five years. It was, he says, a life-altering experience. "After that, I said, 'I'm not working for anyone else ever again.' Before, I was waiting on tables. It was a lot of stress."
The taco truck was an idea that Long and Kyner had been tossing around for several years, since they moved to Providence and discovered that the Mexican food options were limited.
"I've just been so into Mexican food my whole life," Long says. "I grew up eating crappy tacos. Then people started coming to the Northwest from Mexico and they brought some killer food. Out here, there was this void. It drove me crazy."
One winter day, Long drove by a hand-painted blue food truck sitting on an abandoned lot. The truck had four flat tires and a For Sale sign.
"I just bought it," he says. "I traded my four-by-four truck and a couple of grand."
The truck was a mess. All the good stuff had been stripped or stolen. It took a week to get it started. Long rebuilt everything. He bought solar panels to power the fan. He bought a propane refrigerator and a new grill.
By June 15, 2004, the taco truck, repainted green, was ready to roll. Long and his wife didn't start from scratch, however. They had been lifting recipes from burrito stands on the West Coast for years, and they routinely prepared Mexican food at home.
"I figured there are enough hipsters and artists out there who love burritos," Long says. "I want to serve our friends quality food so they don't get poisoned by the hot dog stands."
Long and Kyner grow a lot of their own vegetables on their property, a double lot in the West End. They also buy organically grown produce from local farmers.
"We rely on really fresh stuff," he says, "nothing processed. We wash all of the beans and soak them overnight. We treat the food with respect."
The taco truck, however, is not the laid-back lark that Long makes it out to be. On the nights that Long goes out (his wife waitresses at the Decatur), Long and Kyner start their day early, picking vegetables from the garden, washing and cutting the food, making the guacamole.
"We don't even advertise," Long says. "People call our hot line. We let them know where the truck will be every day. If I'm late, 20 bike messengers will be waiting for dinner."
At the park on Parade Street, two other neighborhood fans, Jill Colinan and her 2-year-old daughter, Louise, stop by for their Thursday burrito fix.
"I love that it's called the taco truck," Colinan says. "That's because no one in Rhode Island can pronounce taqueria."
Louise is already a fan of Mexican food. Colinan says her daughter is a regular at the Decatur, where she actually plays a game called taco truck.
"Louise, Louise, Louise," Long sings as the toddler cavorts on the grass in her sparkly sneakers.
Inside, Long is constantly in motion, grilling meat, heating up the taco shells, pulling grated cheese out of the refrigerator. The space isn't much bigger than a large bathroom. Three miniature sinks crowd up against a steam table and a flat-top grill, which sits across from a refrigerator.
Outside, a couple of posters are taped to the truck. One advertises the Providence Anarchist Book Fair; the other is an ad for Lady Catalpa Gardening.
Although he usually plays Black Sabbath, another rock band pounds out of the CD player on this night.
"No cook Thursdays" is what Dyan Dealy calls her weekly visits to the taco truck. Dealy and her family live across the street from the park, and she carries the taco truck's hot line in her wallet. As the night rolls on, a woman stops by to give Long an invitation to Sunday brunch.
"One of the great things about living here is there's this group of people whose goal is to build community," Molly Booker says. "Tyler and Allison are always positive. They are truly involved in the community. They support local organizations."
Long, she says, formed a surfer organization that cleans up local beaches. "I consider them extended family," Booker says.
Long closes up shop when the weather gets cold. Last winter, the couple spent a couple of months in Hawaii, surfing and hanging out with friends. Long muses about opening another taco truck on the Big Island, where the surf is always up.
If food is Long's life, then surfing is his passion. He hasn't missed
a good swell in four years and he surfs 120 days a year, right through
the winter. All of his vacations are based around good beaches.
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