The Taco Mafia Is Making Austin’s Restaurant Scene a Little Friendlier

Sara Mardanbigi knew something was wrong the moment she woke, because her pillow was unusually cool. The co-owner and manager of Nixta Taqueria in Austin checked the thermometer. It was 40 degrees inside the house she shares with her boyfriend and business partner, Nixta executive chef Edgar Rico. Mardanbigi woke him up early that morning, February 15, the second day of a devastating winter storm that sent temperatures plunging below freezing for a record six days. Four million Texans were left without power; nearly 15 million faced water disruptions. As people grew colder, hungrier, and thirstier, Rico and Mardanbigi decided to take action. They called on a group of restaurant industry friends, the Taco Mafia, to gather at Nixta and cook—even though the East Austin restaurant didn’t have electricity. 

Discada co-owner Anthony Pratto began making calls to friends who own restaurants and trucks. He asked them to bring their food to Nixta. “I would feel horrible knowing that we have all this food, knowing how many people are hungry, knowing that it’s really hard to get food,” he said. Among those joining the effort were the Dough Boys pizza crew, Nick Belloni of Trill Foods, and Mariela Camacho of Comadre Panaderia. Good Samaritans dropped off dry goods, feminine hygiene products, candles, and water. Tankproof, a Louisiana-based relief organization, donated two flatbed trucks loaded with supplies. Word spread quickly on social media, and a long line formed outside Nixta—more than four hundred people were fed in the first thirty minutes, according to Rico. The cooks worked by the light of headlamps over gas camp stoves. Everything was free, and the effort continued over the next several days; Rico estimates that as many as five thousand people received food or water each day. 

Austin’s Mexican restaurant community had probably never collaborated to such an extent to help those in need, and it was all thanks to the Taco Mafia, a loose collective of chefs, cooks, taqueros, and restaurant professionals. The original members, the owners of La Tunita 512 (Gerardo “Jerry” Guerrero), Discada (Pratto and Xose Velasco), Cuantos Tacos (Luis “Beto” Robledo), and Nixta Taqueria (Mardanbigi and Rico), were longtime friends who admired one another’s cooking. Robledo and Guerrero went to the same Austin high school; Pratto and Velasco have been best friends since they were teenagers living in Houston. Each of their businesses specializes in its own Mexican food style, including Robledo’s Mexico City–style mini tacos and Rico’s creative, modernist takes. While the response to the freeze was the group’s biggest achievement, its members have only become closer since. They look out for one another, offering advice and support on how to navigate the ups and downs of the service industry. From putting out a fire at Nixta to fund-raising for one chef’s medical bills, planning collaborations, and experimenting with new specials, the Taco Mafia is making Austin’s notoriously competitive restaurant culture a little friendlier.

As you might expect, the Taco Mafia was born over tortillas. While Rico and Mardanbigi were working to open Nixta Taqueria in October 2019, they visited Austin taquerias. The first place they checked out was Discada. After several visits, Pratto, Velasco, and Rico and Mardanbigi struck up a friendship. When the venue for a friend’s birthday party fell through at the last minute, Rico offered Discada his own backyard. “Our friendship came from that,” Pratto says. The circle quickly grew to include Robledo and Guerrero.

A name such as the Taco Mafia might conjure hokey images of private dining spaces or secret pop-ups where a small group of powerful, perhaps intimidating characters hold court and make life-changing decisions. Perhaps a bottle or two of tequila might be involved, as it was when Mardanbigi coined the group’s name in a video for Vice’s “Off the Truck” series that featured Discada. At the end, the friends sit at a picnic table outside Nixta, toasting to having kept their businesses afloat during the pandemic “The Taco Mafia, eh!” laughs Mardanbigi, evoking the classic Italian American mobster flicks of the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

Discada tacos

Discada tacos

An order of discada tacos, which can take up to 35 hours to cook, at Discada.Photograph by José R. Ralat

The Taco Mafia has no official leader, but Robledo sits at the proverbial head of the table. He’s soft-spoken but cuts an imposing figure at six foot seven, and regularly drives by Nixta after hours just to check on the place. The habit saved the restaurant when, as Robledo drove past at about 1 a.m. one day in February 2020, he noticed yellow and red lights flickering in the dumpsters. Robledo pulled over and crouched behind an agave plant across the street to figure out what was amiss. Flames were licking at the taqueria’s exterior wall. Inside, Discada’s Pratto and Velasco were prepping food for the next day (discada takes up to 35 hours to cook). The towering taquero calmly pulled his phone from his pocket and called Rico and Mardanbigi. When he told them that their dumpster was on fire, they thought he was joking—until Rico remembered that he’d just installed a container nearby with fifty propane tanks. The Taco Mafia crew believes that someone deliberately started a fire next to the tanks after Pratto and Velasco entered the Nixta kitchen. Whatever happened, it was a close call.

Rico, and by extension Nixta, is the heart of the Taco Mafia. He’s a tall, burly guy who often offers his restaurant as a gathering place for taqueros and restaurant industry workers. Mardanbigi is nurturing and no-nonsense; she’ll lead you to your seat to feed you a mole inspired by her Persian background, but she’ll also swat the back of your head with a chancla (flip-flop) for stepping out of line. It wouldn’t be too much to say Mardanbigi is a Carmela Corleone in the making.

Pratto and Velasco spend loads of time clowning around. They might be the comedic relief with disarming smiles, but they have one job—cooking discada tacos—and they do it masterfully. Guerrero, who, like Robledo, sports a scruffy beard, is known in the group for keeping his cool when crises happen. He grins a slightly toothy smile that might conceal a hint of mischief. When Guerrero speaks, it’s a low rumble. 

But the Austin Taco Mafia isn’t just a bunch of bros. Honorary membership extends to industry veterans such as Veracruz All Natural owners Reyna and Maritza Vasquez. The Taco Mafia look up to them. Mardanbigi calls the sisters “las chingonas,” the badass women who created an environment where the Austin Taco Mafia could gain a foothold. Veracruz pitched in to relief efforts with the Nixta crew during the February freeze. “You might say, we’re kind of like the matriarchs of the Austin Taco Mafia,” says Reyna. 

“They totally are!” echoes Rico. “It’s one of those things where when you put your own ego aside, you can realize people are doing some really cool things and how do we support that, and how can we highlight what they’re doing?” says Mardanbigi.

One expression of that collaborative spirit is as simple as vouching for a trusted colleague. That’s what Robledo did when he helped the Dough Boys pizza trailer get a spot at Arbor Food Truck Park on East Twelfth Street. Robledo hadn’t tasted the pizza. Nevertheless, he trusted co-owners Tony Curet and Max Tilka. Pratto and Velasco also spoke up for them, and Dough Boys signed the lease before anyone had tried their food. “I’m thankful to be in the same conversations as these guys because of what they do for the community and how they run their businesses,” Curet says. “Anything that they need, we try to help them.” Dough Boys’ opening menu offered a combo deal with al pastor chicken wings from Nixta, confited in duck fat, and a pizza designed by the Discada chefs. Creative crossovers like this are good not just for the owners, but for diners too. Instead of having to hit up all three restaurants, you can often get a taste of each at pop-ups—a.k.a. the Taco Mafia Tour. 

In March, Cuantos Tacos’s Robledo underwent aortic valve surgery to treat complications from Marfan syndrome, a genetically inherited tissue disorder that affects every part of a person’s anatomy. Robledo is legally blind in his left eye, and when he was a teenager his lungs collapsed; now heart problems threatened his life. His health insurance didn’t cover the entire cost of surgery and a hospital stay, let alone time off work. Dough Boys designed a white T-shirt with a graphic of the word “Beto” inside a red heart. They sold out in hours. Mardanbigi started a GoFundMe campaign, and the efforts raised more than $15,000 combined. “He’s so deserving … He’s a really good man and has a really great heart,” she says, recalling the dumpster fire incident. “The money we raised pays for like two days in the hospital, but we’ll do what we can do for Beto,” added Curet.

Professional cooking is exhausting mental and physical work. Throw in make-or-break elements like South by Southwest and vandalism, such as that experienced early on by Veracruz All Natural, and the restaurant industry can be a brutal place to spend long days and nights earning low wages at businesses with thin margins. It clings to positive press more than a positive work environment. That’s starting to change, with the rise of industry organizations such as the Comedor Run Club, which promotes exercise instead of drinking, and Southern Smoke, which supports food workers facing health crises or natural disasters. The Taco Mafia is an important part of this shift. 

Cuantos Tacos

Cuantos Tacos

An order of lengua tacos at Cuantos Tacos.Photograph by José R. Ralat

“What sets the Taco Mafia apart [is that] even though we are in direct competition …  we ride or die for each other,” says Pratto. “We genuinely want each other to succeed.  I hope we can set an example for the future of the Austin taco scene and food scene in general.”

For the moment, everyone in the Taco Mafia is thriving. Nixta recently expanded its outdoor seating, and Jerry Guerrero, who switched from serving birria de chivo to selling the more popular brisket birria, sells out in a couple of hours some days. He is looking for a larger truck and will then bring back his rich, gamy goat birria. Pratto and Velasco are looking for more space, perhaps even a brick-and-mortar, that will allow them to offer more than northern Mexico–style discada. They’re also mulling opening an entirely new concept instead. Cuantos moved into a larger food trailer this year and will retrofit the original 1963 Ford Step Van into a gordita operation. More collaborations with the extended, honorary members of the Taco Mafia are to be expected too. If you missed the January smoked carnitas tortas pop-up from Nixta, Discada, and Big Daddy Karne barbecue–whose proceeds benefited Houston’s Relief Gang—you might get another chance to scarf down smoked Duroc pork finished in a traditional carnitas cazo de cobre. You might get to try something unexpected at another pop-up in the future. Regardless, you’ll be eating some of the best Mexican food in Austin. The Taco Mafia has your back.

Texas Monthly