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Editor’s Note: Our Los Angeles Walk Leader Ulysses James Salcido III recently served as a producer and cinematographer on Échale Ganas, a documentary that tells the story of a family-run taco stand in L.A. For this special feature, we asked Ulysses to tell us a bit about the film and the taco makers its profiled.

For many people during the pandemic, the need to have a restaurant experience was supplemented by picking up food to go. Knowing that potential customers were on the lookout for something special during this time, Victor Villa of Villa’s Tacos in Highland Park, a historic Mexican enclave in Los Angeles, supplied not only the perfect dish, but also a unique ordering system that allowed Villa’s to continue serving the community.

Every Tuesday at noon, customers test their luck as they try to send in their order via direct message on the Villa’s Tacos Instagram page, hoping to be one of the 350 or so lucky few who make the cut before the tacos sell out. They then make the pilgrimage to Highland Park for the famous “L.A.-Style Taco” sold at Villa’s weekend pop-up, which runs form 3 p.m. – 10 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Waiting in anticipation all week for their designated time slot, customers follow the white plume of smoke coming from the grill at Victor’s grandmother’s backyard in a residential neighborhood. The site of a line of cars and customers lets them know when they’ve arrived. Over a metal chain-link fence overgrown with vines on a residential block in the neighborhood, Victor and his team of parents, siblings, cousins, and friends can be seen busily pressing tortillas, grilling meat, and packaging fresh salsas at the outdoor kitchen.

After graduating with a business degree, Victor worked at popular restaurants in L.A., gaining experience on how to manage a successful restaurant. A few months later, he was confident that he had the skills to open a successful business in his community using recipes and flavors that he remembers from his childhood, made by the hands of family members who add the secret ingredient, “mucho mucho amor:” a lot of love.

In December 2018, Victor began making tacos for the first time in the front yard of his grandmother’s home. A few weeks in, he realized he needed to drum up some more business, so he rolled his grill (which is named Maria) down three blocks to “pop-up” at a busy intersection on the corner of York and Ave. 51, grilling up tacos under the name Villa’s Tacos. It was during that time that word about his unique L.A.-Style taco spread around the neighborhood.

This 7-layer taco begins with an organic, hand-pressed blue corn tortilla – a representation of Victor’s heritage. His family is from Michoacán, Mexico, where blue corn is a strong part of the community’s identity. The color takes on even deeper meaning with Victor’s love for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the baseball team’s iconic blue shade, instantly recognizable across the city. Each tortilla is pressed to order, then topped with griddled crispy cheese, refried beans, and one of three options of mesquite-grilled meat, or vegetarian options including nopal salad, soyrizo, and potatoes. The fillings are then topped with crema, cotija cheese, and guacamole, not to mention hibiscus pickled onions and a selection of homemade salsas, all inspired by Villa family recipes.

It’s the kind of taco that stands out even in taco-crazy Los Angeles, a taco that draws honking horns of support from passing cars on the street. The taco frenzy at Villa’s also caught the eye of filmmaker Shirley He, who was browsing YouTube food reviewers when she found Villa’s Tacos and knew she had to stop by. “It’s the online ordering system, the unique seven-layer blue-corn ‘Estilo LA’ taco, and the deliberate presentation and layout on Instagram which gives a whole persona to the taco,” she said. Victor is often approached by food reviewers, who typically create short, 1-2 minute videos on his business. Reviewers are attracted not only by the food but by Victor’s personality, which can be seen on Villa’s Tacos’s social media in the form of high-energy videos with music, dancing, singing, and chanting with customers and his team. So, when Shirley shyly approached him as he pressed fresh blue corn tortillas and asked if she could film a short documentary about the family, he happily accepted her request.

Within a week of her visit, Shirley formed a team who filmed this documentary for over three months. Having studied visual anthropology alongside Shirley a few years prior, I was asked to help on the film as a producer and cinematographer. I used my experience as an L.A. native to help accurately portray the city’s love for tacos and the uniqueness of Villa’s Tacos amongst the many vendors in the city – giving an insider’s look at not only the food, but also the Villa’s backstory and the daily rituals that shape the team’s identity.

During the filming of the documentary, Villa’s Tacos was invited to compete against 31 other taco vendors in the 2021 L.A. Taco Madness tournament, an elimination style, week-over-week competition to recognize the best tacos in L.A. each year. After several weeks of documenting this tournament, the cameras rolled as customers, community members and family watched Victor being presented with the winning trophy.

Shirley had set out to make a film only a few minutes long. Nearly six months later, Échale Ganas: The Villa’s Tacos Story premiered at a local theater with standing room only. The now 30-minute documentary is named for “¡Échale ganas!”, an expression often used by Victor’s grandfather and adopted by the family after their grandfather’s passing. It is a motivational phrase meant to encourage someone to “Give it your all!” no matter what obstacle lies ahead.

Recently, Victor defended his title in the 2022 L.A. Taco Madness tournament, becoming the first to win back-to-back championships, as well as winning a $100,000 grant to begin his dreams of owning a brick and mortar restaurant of his own. Échale Ganas: The Villa’s Tacos Story is currently screening in film festivals across the nation, and working to make the film available for streaming soon.

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Ulysses SalcidoUlysses Salcido

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