He made it look easy. With a beaming grin under a black velvet sombrero, David Montes de Oca served tacos al pastor, worked the crowd with a karaoke mic and ended up sweeping the inaugural Top Taco festival and contest in March.

He brought so many trophies home to his small Kenner restaurant, Taqueria Chilangos, he could barely hold on to them all at once. Chilangos was the people's favorite, the judges' choice and, to make it a taco triple crown, it won the event's "Ultimate Top Taco" award. 

But nothing about Montes de Oca’s path has been easy and, like these accolades, his successes have surprised no one more than himself.

“I came to New Orleans with the will of God and no money in my pocket,” Montes de Oca said during an interview conducted with a translator. “This is my home now, but to make it, I had to adapt. I came here to work, and I have been working hard. But I had to learn a lot, too.”

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ADVOCATE PHOTO BY J.T. BLATTY - An altar to the Virgin Mary holds down one end of the bar at Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner.

This Friday marks Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that has become an American-made celebration of Mexican heritage, one pursued largely through food and drink wherever people sling tortillas and shoot tequila.

In the weeks since Top Taco, however, Montes de Oca has himself been a cause for celebration in his adopted home of Kenner. To win those taco festival awards, his side street taqueria in the suburbs had to prevail over big New Orleans restaurateurs and some of the best-known names in the city’s Mexican restaurant circuit.

For Montes de Oca, now 35 and a legal permanent resident, it was a personal triumph in an immigrant’s tale that has tracked the particular contours of post-Katrina New Orleans.

“He’s the pride of Kenner now,” said Rafael Saddy, a longtime Hispanic civic activist and the cultural diversity officer for the city of Kenner. “He’s a small fish who made it. He came here with nothing and now you can see what he's accomplished."

"There was an opportunity”

As a kid growing up in Mexico City, Montes de Oca gravitated to the family kitchen, where his grandmother taught him to cook beans and rice. He helped out at his uncle’s open-air taco stand down the street, watching him marinate beef in lime and salt for suadero tacos and eek out a living serving food to his neighbors. At home he devoured American TV cooking shows and watched how food and chefs took the spotlight. He dreamed of opening a restaurant of his own.

At 15 he left home, heading north to America. He walked across the Rio Grande and eventually made his way to Houston.

“I was looking for a different life,” he said. “Life in Mexico was hard for someone like me, from my status.”

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ADVOCATE PHOTO BY J.T. BLATTY - The late David Montes de Oca works with Mayra Colindres in the kitchen of Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner in a photo taken in April 2017.

He got his first job in America as a dishwasher at a chain restaurant. He kept an eye on what other people did around the kitchen, looking over their shoulders to pick up techniques. Within weeks he was promoted to the salad station, then the broiler, then the grill. Eventually, he reached the same conclusion that has set many restaurateurs on their paths.

“I was working hard, I wanted to work that hard for myself,” Montes de Oca said.

He bought a used taco truck, which he christened Chilangos, a term for people from Mexico City. It was a step toward his dream, but he struggled to make a living. In the parts of Houston he knew, it seemed like every block had a Mexican restaurant or a taco truck like his.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck, and the talk around his taco truck turned to New Orleans and all the construction jobs that suddenly beckoned in the ravaged city.

“Even though the news we heard about Katrina was sad, I also heard that there was a need for people to be here, that our people were headed there,” said Montes de Oca, referring to Hispanics. “The news was very sad, but we also heard there was an opportunity.”

Bumps in the road

After the 350-mile road trip from Houston, his taco truck got a flat just before the Loyola Avenue highway exit in Kenner. He limped off the interstate and parked in front of a Sam’s Club until he sold enough tacos to fix the truck.

With that inauspicious start, Chilangos joined the ad hoc fleet of taco trucks that materialized in New Orleans and its suburbs as the area’s Hispanic population surged in the post-Katrina years. He was making money, though he hardly had it made.

“I’m not proud to say this, but I would sleep in the truck,” Montes de Oca said. “I had friends who let me shower at their house. I’d go out and buy the food, cook it and sell it and then sleep in the same truck all the time.”

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ADVOCATE PHOTO BY J.T. BLATTY - A platter of fajitas is stacked with ribs, chorizo, shrimp skewers and other meats at Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner.

The days of the taco truck in Jefferson Parish came to an abrupt end in 2007. That's when parish officials enacted new rules that effectively pushed taco trucks out, barring mobile vendors from major streets and requiring them to have restroom facilities to remain in business.

Chilangos held out the longest. A sympathetic landlord allowed Montes de Oca to operate his truck from his Veterans Boulevard lot, even as citations from the parish piled up. After a few months, Montes de Oca finally sidelined the truck.

But instead of moving on he settled down, remaking Chilangos as a traditional taqueria. It took all the money he had saved, and some he had to borrow from friends. But he decided he had to invest if he wanted to keep his business alive in his new home.

“With a truck, you don’t know when they’ll change the rules. But with a restaurant it’s more clear,” Montes de Oca said. “I want to respect the rules, so I opened the restaurant.”

A taco triple crown

Chilangos Taqueria is easy to overlook in the suburban jumble of big box chains, auto dealerships and strip mall storefronts in its corner of Kenner. Inside, the restaurant feels a little bootstrap and handmade. A tangle of silver ductwork and black wires web the ceiling. An altar to the Virgin Mary flickers with blinking lights at the corner of the bar, next to a big basket of chips under heat lamps.

Contractors in matching company shirts and families with kids in school uniforms hold down tables that are as shiny and colorful as surfboards, navigating iron fajita plates stacked with ribs and links of chorizo and slurping from huge bowls of caldo de mariscos.

Montes de Oca is always on the move around his restaurant. In the dining room, he’s checking on a salsa bar arrayed in a giant wooden crate like a treasure chest. Behind the bar, he pops the caps off quart-sized Corona bottles and breaks out terracotta mugs the size of flower pots to make jarrito loco (“crazy jug”) cocktails.

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ADVOCATE PHOTO BY J.T. BLATTY - Jarrito loco, a tequila cocktail served in a clay mug, is a specialty at the bar at Taqueria Chilango.

He often gets an assist from his mother, Anna Garcia, who moved from Mexico City to join her son in Kenner a few years ago. She makes a special salsa verde and is in charge of the hand-made tortillas the restaurant serves on weekends.

Montes de Oca has built a steady business here. He also helped start the restaurant Chilangos Seafood on Williams Boulevard, though he is no longer involved with that business.

More recently, he has expanded his range with a mobile catering unit for parties and festivals. Mindful of the earlier flap over taco trucks, he’s careful to call this one a trailer, and he’s dubbed it el Chilangito, the little Chilango. It’s an open-top rig equipped with a flattop grill, counters for self-serve taco bars and enough staging, lights and audio/visual gear to double as an al fresco karaoke parlor.

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - David Montes de Oca joined dozens of New Orleans-area restaurants at Top Taco and won three awards at the inaugural taco festival and contest.

El Chilangito was Montes de Oca’s flagship during Top Taco, a festival that debuted this year at Spanish Plaza with three dozen local restaurants serving tacos and competing for awards. Attendees voted for their favorite tacos, and a panel of roving judges made their own top picks (this writer was one of the 32 judges). By the end of the night, Chilangos had nabbed every award it was qualified to win for traditional tacos and won the Ultimate Top Taco, the highest award, based on scores tabulated across multiple categories.

Shane Finkelstein, producer of the local event and proprietor of the Elmwood restaurant Nacho Mama’s, announced winners in each category from the stage.

“When I opened those pieces of paper, I was shocked. It was them again and again,” he said. “But they just embraced the whole thing and brought their A game. They took every extra step to make it the best it could be.”

Taqueria Chilangos

2723 Roosevelt Blvd., Kenner, 504-469-5599

Lunch and dinner daily

Cinco de Mayo: On May 5, the taco trailer el Chilango will be part of the Family Fiesta, a Cinco de Mayo party with live music, food, drinks and crafts at Rivertown Heritage Park, 2015 Fourth St., Kenner, from 6 p.m.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.