TacoNganas serves up cultural connections, local jobs, and first-class food
Photography by Chip Chockley
When someone told me about TacoNganas, I thought, “Nganas? What kind of name is that for a Mexican food truck? Maybe they’re from Africa? Asia?” Regardless, I had to check it out.
When I visited the truck, I understood the Spanish gimmick. “TacoNganas” is a play on words, specifically the phrase “con ganas.” And it’s difficult to translate, so I defer to math teacher Jaime Escalante—who was portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the inspiring 1988 film Stand and Deliver. He puts it this way: “Ganas = desire + determination + discipline.”
“Tacos with ganas. Cool name,” I reconsidered.
One bite and you can tell right away that this food is made with “ganas.” It also makes you feel “ganas” to go back.
Behind this popular food truck is Cuban-Mexican pastor and entrepreneur Greg Diaz. Greg and his wife, Daisy, are widely known in the local Latino community because of their role as head of Iglesia Nueva Dirección, and also because they run Las Américas, a youth development center that has been supporting Latino kids since 2004 as they adapt to American culture. Before Covid, up to 900 kids would take part in their programs, including summer camps, reading boot camps, after-school care, and even a soccer team. Currently around 90 children are joining daily for their virtual hub activities; this supports Latino parents who perform low-paying jobs deemed as “essential” during the current crisis.
“Part of TacoNganas’ success is obviously the tasty food, made with fresh, high-quality ingredients. But it goes beyond that,” Greg tells me as I try the consomé.
“It is also about the great customer service. Food is not only food; it is the way it makes you feel. It is also the culture around it.”
The consomé is a delicious, scented beef soup perfect for dipping. It’s dark and intense with little chunks of vegetables and meat in it. Not what you would expect from a taco truck, but be sure not to miss it.
Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tortas, and gorditas are the bulk of their menu. “We have a simple menu, but this allows us to keep focused on delivering a high-quality product,” Greg tells me.
You can find all the traditional meats: pastor (marinated pork), asada (chopped grilled beef), barbacoa (marinated shredded beef), carnitas (fried pork chunks), chicharrón (pork skins in salsa), pollo (chicken), and camarones (grilled shrimp). The house speciality includes your choice of meat prepared with a dried pepper salsa and sauteéd onions. If you want to try something more traditional, go for the tacos de canasta, served in steamed tortillas and filled with either chorizo (Mexican sausage), chicharrón, or frijoles refritos (refried beans).
One of 10 children, Greg grew up in Mexico City. His mom had to juggle between the home duties and the huge responsibility of owning a restaurant. Later in life she had to move to Houston for health reasons, and that’s what ultimately brought him to the United States at the age of 12. “Nobody wants to leave their home, come to a country where you don’t have any friends,and learn a new language. But sometimes people don’t have another choice,” he says. “Thirty years ago I was one of those children with a lot of ‘ganas’ but also intimidated by a new language and a new country.”
Greg says this experience is what ultimately inspired him to create Las Américas.
“For us Latinos, food is culture. Sitting down for a meal is a whole event. Just look at the lunch boxes of Latino construction workers. It is not just a snack; it is a connection to their families and to their culture. And this is also part of our success. We don’t simply sell tacos.”
“What we sell at TacoNganas is a full experience of connection to the Mexican culture,” he says with a big smile.
Back in January, Greg opened the first TacoNganas at 2898 South Perkins Road. The response was such that only six weeks later a second location opened on Summer Avenue. The truck has moved along the avenue a bit and is now across from Kroger. It has a comfortable parking lot and some tables, but mostly everybody on-site is waiting for their orders to take home.
A mobile food truck is available to cater events all over Memphis, and a Cordova location is in the works. All the food is prepared in a single commercial kitchen that supplies the trucks and guarantees that everybody is getting the same product quality.
Preaching and owning food trucks may seem like a strange marriage, but it’s always felt natural to Greg. “Remember I grew up in the food business,” Greg says. “In fact, after opening my first church in Memphis, I opened a food truck here. I think it was the first one in Memphis. It was called La Tia (“The Aunt,” in English). It was going well, but I decided to sell it because back then they would not issue a permit for it. That is something impossible to work around when you want to be completely legal as all immigrants do. Nobody wants to feel like an outlaw for only working hard.”
And now, 20 years later, he is trying again. “I know a lot of people, and they always ask me to recommend caterers, so I decided to give it a try myself and teach my three children basic entrepreneurship. This is also helping to pay for their college bills, and it is allowing me to provide 37 people with full-time jobs as I run a business that I know from the inside. And it is about sharing my roots with the people of this city that I love,” Greg states with pride.
Alejandro Paredes is an audiovisual journalist and producer. In 2014 he visited Memphis for the first time and fell in love with the city. He has been involved in many initiatives to promote Latino culture, such as Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre Group, Ruta Memphis, and New Mix FM. @panarkista
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais, and his wife and kids. @chipchockley