Every year, at about this time, my friend Tom Lennon has been hosting an event called the Taco Tour for those local bicycle enthusiasts loosely aligned under the banner of Bike Ypsi. As I couldn’t make it yesterday, for the 6th annual marathon of corn tortilla-wrapped gluttony, I sent Tom a handful of questions. Following are his answers.
MARK: So, yesterday was the 6th annual Taco Tour. For those folks who’ve never heard of the Taco Tour, what can you tell us about it… Let’s start with its origins… How did the idea first come about?
TOM: I read about a guy who toured every taco stand in his town one Thanksgiving weekend. He lived in San Francisco or Los Angeles. He made over 40 stops in 3 days. I thought that a group ride around the same theme might be fun, and that’s where it all started. I did the first tour as a group of 20, because I was unsure of my logistic/organizational ability. I pre-rode that tour twice, once with my sons, and once with Ken Shannon. We tested the fare, and bounced the idea off the owners. They were unsure at first, not having encountered the idea of people riding their bikes around and sampling tacos before… Now the owners are having as much fun as the riders.
TOM: I like tacos… I’m from the Southwest and miss Mexican fare. Besides, tacos are quick to eat, tasty, and well-liked. I also ran an Espresso Ride, where we all had shots at each of five different stops. The folks on that ride all said, “once was enough”. Even though it was, um, exhilarating, it hasn’t been repeated.
MARK: That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Did people poop their bike shorts?
TOM: No. We did have elevated heart rates, though. One person said, “I felt fine while riding, but, when I got off, my heart rate didn’t slow down.” We also had some animated conversations during the breakfast afterward… Thomas Kula joined us late, and, not to be left out, had all five shots at the last stop.
TOM: I grew up in Tucson. I miss the desert, the mountains, the previous culture. I say that because every 50 years, Arizona becomes a different place, culturally. I do not miss what it is now, overrun by immigrants from the Midwest. Golf courses, gun-worshippers, and governors who flout the law keep me away. The Arizona of my youth was still conservative, but not like it is today. (Barry Goldwater even felt preservation-minded about the West.) I do miss the desert, which has more life forms, plant and animal, than you could imagine. But youthful wanderlust brought me here, first to Ann Arbor, where I met my wife. After school we came to Ypsi. My wife is from Ann Arbor. We prefer Ypsi. She says, “Ypsi is real.” That captures it for me.
MARK: At least, from my perspective, it seems that the evolution of the local taco scene has really taken off this last decade. I mean for a town the size of Ypsilanti, in the middle of the rust belt, it seems to me that we have some pretty good taco options. Would you agree?
TOM: We have excellent choices… more than I can include on the Tour. Smaller, local businesses are what get included. I hope every year to have more choices to consider for the Tour.
TOM: 6 stops. 16 miles.
MARK: What were the six stops?
TOM: Fiesta Mexicana, on Cross Street. Dos Hermanos, on Michigan Avenue. La Casita, on Washtenaw, in Fountain Square. Taqueria la Fiesta, at Carpenter and Packard. TMAZ on Packard near Platt. And Chela’s, at Stone School and Ellsworth. The last two of which are across Carpenter, technically in Ann Arbor.
MARK: How much did it cost to participate this year, and what did people get for their money?
TOM: $20. Custom water bottle, 6 tacos, a beer at the Corner. I can’t quantify the fun part, though.
MARK: Best moment of the Tour?
TOM: Wow. So many great moments. Each group and stop had a highlight. We had live music at TMAZ. Folks were dancing. We had a 10 year old who rode his BMX bike the entire way. We had car drivers who cheered us on after asking what we were doing. I’m sure others had some great moments that I didn’t see. Our group stopped to change a flat tire at one point. It wasn’t easy. It took two tubes and two trips to retrieve spares. All the riders were patient, and visited with one another, with no complaints about the delay. When we moved on, we discovered that our bikes, which had been laying on the ground, had created a rain shadow, as it had been lightly raining. That was a moment of beauty, rather than what could have been a time of grousing and complaining.
MARK: How have things changed over the six years you’ve now been doing this?
TOM: The first year we had 20 people, 8 of whom were members of my family (Ruth, James, Josh, Stefan, Kinga, Jon, Sara, nephew Jesse). And, each year, the size has doubled, without any advertising. This year was 150 and FULL. (With only four family members.)
MARK: When you say “full” do you mean that you’re at capacity? Do you think that 150 is the absolute ceiling?
TOM: That number worked this year. The ride groups were large, at 25 each. With six stops, we can do the circuit and not get in each others’ way, and the taquerias can deal with our numbers. Perhaps another method would work, but I think that we’ve got it about right.
TOM: This year was Happy! Folks were smiling… riders, owners, workers. The owners like seeing so many bicycles roll in, and the cyclists like seeing what new choices they have. The owners basically get exposure to a bigger customer base, and the riders discover places they didn’t already know about.
MARK: So, technically, how does it work? Do I understand it correctly that you’ve got 6 different groups on 25, and each group is approaching the taquerias in a different order?
TOM: Groups ride out to different destinations. Group 1 went to Fiesta Mexicana, Group 2 went to Dos Hermanos, Group 3 went to Taqueria la Fiesta, and so on. From there, we rotated around to all the stops. So, Fiesta Mexicana was the 1st stop for some, the last stop for others, and in between for the rest.
MARK: And what happens when you get there? Does every place have one meat option and one veggie option? Do they just bring platters out, or does everyone go in, sit down, and eat as they would normally?
TOM: At Dos Hermanos, we just go through the line, with everyone ordering what they want. Other places take orders, and bring the food to the table. Two stops had buffet style, and we were served what we wanted. Each rider gets 6 tickets, each of which can be redeemed for a taco. And I sell them extra tickets if they’re hungry. Some stops serve two tacos to each rider. I know of one rider who had 13 tacos. Others fill up quickly and give away their tickets. One ticket is especially marked “Beer”. That goes for, of course, a beer at the Corner Brewery. I always have the veggie option. As I eat vegetarian, this matters to me, and a fair number of the riders are also veggie or vegan. It’s my opinion that any cook of ability should know how to make a good meal without meat. It’s a test of the kitchen. Some riders order more than one taco, a meat and a veggie.
MARK: I don’t want to put you in a tough spot, as I know these folks are your friends, but, this year, who had the best tacos?
TOM: “Best taco” is easy to answer. We give the riders a menu/ballot with each place and taco variety listed. Afterwards folks vote, and I tally up the scores. The quality, in my opinion, was better this year than ever before. I did not personally vote, as I thought all were quite good… All were better than last year… But the official tally was clear: TMAZ won, both for the Best Meat Taco and for the Best Veggie Taco. Prior year winners have been Zorro’s (now out of business), Dos Hermanos, Fiesta Mexicana, and Taqueria la Fiesta. I routinely visit all the stops throughout the year, to eat their food. For me, being included is winning. I won’t mention names, but some places don’t make the cut. All the stops have to be good. Personally, I want the riders to like every stop.
MARK: Do you remember the winning taco? What made it special?
TOM: Barbacoa. That’s oven-roasted beef, shredded and served as loose meat in the taco. Of course onions, cilantro and salsa complete a taco. Tortillas are steamed or grilled, which also adds flavor. Next best was “al Pastor” a pineapple marinated pork. The best veggie was a potato with poblano pepper. The runner-up was a mushroom taco, nicely spiced. We also had cactus tacos which were very flavorful.
MARK: Any thoughts on how, if at all, you might changes things up next year?
TOM: Hmmm… I’m always open to suggestions. I believe collective intelligence is better than one individual’s opinion, so I listen and try to incorporate any good suggestions that come my way.
TOM: I can see it now, “live blogging the Taco Tour”. You’ll be cradling a MacBook Air or i-Pad, describing me hyperventilating up the hill of Pearl street, then calling out the folks who bought some 40′s next door to Taqueria la Fiesta, or inspecting the warming dishes for temperatures. Of course, you’ll order off-menu at Dos Hermanos, where they also serve “skin tacos” (pork product). La Casita also has “Cabeza de res”. (For the uninitiated, this includes brains and tongue.) Maybe all the riders could take a turn pulling the trailer.
[note: All photos courtesy Kristen Cuhran and Tom Lennon. Other photos can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter under the #tacotourseis hash tag.]