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ADVOCATE PHOTO BY J.T. BLATTY - David Montes de Oca poses at his restaurant Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner in April 2017.

David Montes de Oca, a Kenner restaurateur who arrived as part of the early post-Hurricane Katrina influx of Latin Americans to the New Orleans area and won acclaim for his tacos, died Tuesday at a Metairie hotel. He was 36.

Montes de Oca was with friends at the InTown Suites on Hearst Street when he said he felt tired and went into a bathroom, said Rafael Saddy, the Hispanic community liaison for Kenner's municipal government.

Friends later discovered him unconscious and called paramedics, who were unable to resuscitate him, Saddy said. 

Jefferson Parish Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich said an autopsy was ordered. The cause of death remained under investigation Wednesday, with toxicology test results pending, Cvitanovich said.

Montes de Oca was the founder and proprietor of Taqueria Chilangos in the 2700 block of Roosevelt Boulevard in Kenner. The restaurant was the surprise champion of the inaugural Top Taco festival and competition, held in New Orleans in the spring, besting better-known local restaurants and prominent chefs to win a clutch of awards for its traditional flavors.

"He was a point of pride for all of us, an example," Saddy said. "He was a young man who lived his dream. He came with just a truck and grew into a businessman. It's sad."

The restaurateur and his taqueria were entwined with one narrative of post-Katrina New Orleans. 

Montes de Oca grew up in Mexico City, learning to cook in his mother’s kitchen and at his uncle’s open-air taco stand. At 15, he left home, heading north to the United States. 

"I was looking for a different life," Montes de Oca said during an interview in April conducted with a translator. "Life in Mexico was hard for someone like me, from my status."

He walked across the Rio Grande and eventually made his way to Houston, where he worked in chain restaurants' kitchens. He bought a taco truck to go into business for himself, and soon after Katrina, he drove it to New Orleans, where he fed construction workers as the storm-wracked region was just beginning to rebuild. 

Taco trucks disappeared from Jefferson Parish streets after measures passed in 2007 to effectively ban their operation. Montes de Oca — a legal permanent resident at the time of his death — held out the longest, drawing attention as an example of post-Katrina demographic change in the region.

Eventually, he sidelined his truck, but instead of moving on, he doubled down and opened the brick-and-mortar Taqueria Chilangos, dubbing it after a nickname for residents of Mexico City. 

With its traditional menu of tacos and fajitas, Mexican-style barbecue and rotisserie chicken, Taqueria Chilangos built a strong following in Kenner.

In March, when the Top Taco event debuted in Spanish Plaza, many more New Orleanians learned the restaurant's name as it swept the awards categories, winning top trophies for people's favorite, the judges' choice and "Ultimate Top Taco." 

Word of Montes de Oca's death provoked an intense reaction on New Orleans' Hispanic social media scene. Among the messages of mourning was one from Israel Montero, a manager of Chilangos Seafood on Williams Boulevard, which Montes de Oca helped launch but no longer operated.

"Even though he was very young, he knew very well what he wanted in life and worked every day to reach his goal," Montero wrote, in Spanish. "His death is a great loss because he had great ambitions and a noble heart." ​

Survivors include his wife; a 3-year-old son; two stepchildren; and his mother, Ana Garcia, Saddy said. Funeral arrangements are pending. 

Meanwhile, Taqueria Chilangos is closed temporarily, but the family plans to reopen and continue operating the restaurant, Saddy said. 

Update, Friday, Aug. 4, 2017: Montes de Oca's funeral and wake will be at Garden of Memories, 4900 Airline Drive in Metairie. The wake will be from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 8. His funeral will be Wednesday, Aug. 9, with visitation from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and a service at the burial site to follow. 

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