By JOHN O’CONNOR
You may know Taco Bus for its street food standards with recipes direct from Mexico.
Or, you may know them from their frequent appearances on the Food Network, Travel Channel or Cooking Channel.
Owner Rene Valenzeula says he fine with either. “We hear people telling us about the shows all the time,” he said. “Like every week we get an email from someone up North that is coming to Tampa and they either saw us on the Food Network with the ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.’ Or on the Travel Channel…And usually, it goes like: ‘We’re going to Busch Gardens. Which location is the closest to you?’ Or ‘What time do you close the one downtown because we’re going to be there for a convention or something?'”
Taco Bus isn’t alone. The growth of food-centered cable channels has turned several Bay area restaurants into television stars.
That includes Bern’s Steakhouse on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” Ted Peter’s Famouse Smoked Fish on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and Munchie’s 420 Cafe on “Man vs. Food.”
Food shows have featured at least two-dozen local restaurants over the past several years.
Why? Well some of the reasons are obvious. Here’s Fieri again.
“Oh I dig rolling into Tampa Bay,” he said on a Tampa Bay-themed episode. “I mean, we’re talking about great weather, really cool people and some truly memorable Triple D locations.”
Carlos Hernandez writes about restaurants with the nom de blog Carlos Eats.
He sees two other trends working in the Bay area’s favor: An emphasis on local food and the still-recovering national economy.
“Actually, it’s really surprised me how much we have been featured,” Hernandez said. “What I’ve noticed is that we’ve kind of taken the shift, especially after the financial crisis, towards more local businesses. And a lot of people who are into food, or food writers, food personalities, like Adam Richman, they prefer local places.”
The Bay area is known for a handful of high-end restaurants. But Hernandez says you can also do high quality food with middlebrow appeal.
“I think that perception is changing,” he said. I mean, I think when you look at food culture you have to realize there’s different types of food lovers. New York City has its own standards. If the menu’s not $300 then people aren’t probably going to eat there.
“I think that people have realized you don’t necessarily have to go for that. You can go for the regular meal and it might be better than the high end. The food culture has slightly shifted.”
Hernandez says the exposure is helping improve the region’s food scene.
Rene Valenzuela – the owner of Taco Bus – agrees. The exposure has changed his business.
But that first appearance — on “Man Vs. Food” in 2011 – almost didn’t happen.
“Well I didn’t want to do it, because he had this show where he eats a lot of food and it always grosses me out to see him eating like that,” Valenzuela said. “So I told the lady that called me and said ‘I don’t have anything big for him to eat.”
The show’s producer told Valenzuela they were featuring food truck on the East Coast, in Texas and in California — with the challenge in California. So Valenzuela was happy to show off his beef kabob taco recipe on national television.
Taco Bus has expanded to five locations the past two years. But a TV appearance alone isn’t enough.
“Now if the question is, that if the Food Network made a difference?” Valenzuela said. “Well it brought a lot of sales, but I also know other people that the Food Network came to them and they had these huge sales the month or two that follow it and then that’s it. So they promote it like ‘Oh, we were on the Food Network.’ But that doesn’t pay the bills.
“It’s just like the cherry on top, really, it’s not going to be the main thing.”
Valenzuela says he was most impressed by Food Network host Guy Fieri, who ran the Taco Bus shoot like a quarterback.
“I was thinking he’d be more of a puppet and he’s not,” Valenzuela said. “He’s a super leader. He’s in charge of business.”