FRESH OUT OF COLLEGE, Roberto, “Beto,” Salmerón biked from here to Mexico for tacos, and returned with a restaurant concept. “This started out of selfish reasons,” says Salmerón, giving a small pot of housemade tomatillo guacamole a final stir before the lunch crowd descended on his tiny street-food spot. “I wanted tacos.”
So he decided to bike over 1,600 miles to get them.
This was last August. The then 22-year-old had just graduated from the University of Washington with an economics degree, but had no job and no plan. As a last-ditch attempt at gainful employment he interviewed with Old Navy’s shipping department. But when Old Navy called a week later with an offer, Salmerón had already scored an eBay deal on a 2008 Specialized Allez Elite road bike. He’d heard it was a durable model, and it would have to be, since Salmerón planned to ride it all the way down the coast to Tijuana, his hometown.
With a $20 tent, two changes of clothes, and a sleeping bag with a broken zipper, Salmerón ferried to Bremerton then traveled west through hilly terrain. It was life on the edge, literally: Salmerón remembers peering over the side of the road to see a straight drop down to rocky beaches and crashing waves.
He hadn’t prepared much. Before the trip Salmerón had logged only two 30-mile training rides. But he’s a young, healthy guy, and by the time he’d cruised through the Redwood Forest and its dense morning fog, he was cycling five to 10 hours a day. He ate constantly, refueling with peanut butter sandwiches, mostly, dreaming of tacos all the while. When he was far enough into Southern California that the beaches had turned from rock to sand, it dawned on Salmerón what he wanted to do with his life: He’d go to Tijuana and sample as much street food as possible, then return to Seattle and create an authentic eatery that doled out the tortilla-wrapped delicacies he had grown up eating.
A little over a month after leaving Seattle, Salmerón biked into Tijuana, where he followed family members into small, often open-air cantinas with charcoal barbecues and a scattering of tables. He wolfed down two-bite snacks filled with marinated slow-grilled meats, ordered in multiples and garnished simply with a squeeze of lime.
Back in Seattle (he returned by train), Salmerón met Virgilio, “Gilo,” Hernández, a veteran Mexico City taquero now relocated to Seattle. With help from family, the two men secured a long-vacant space on the second floor of the 219 building on Capitol Hill’s Broadway. And in March, they opened Tacos Chukís—chukís is Tijuana slang for “good” or “cool.”
Favorable word of mouth has attracted a steady stream of customers who arrive to munch on the signature tacos: a Mexico City staple stuffed with rotisserie-roasted adobada pork and a slice of pineapple on a warm corn tortilla, and nopales, diced and grilled prickly pear cactus leaves that serve as a vegetarian stand-in for the menu’s meaty items. Prices are low—regular tacos are $1.60—but the vegetables and the meat are high quality and cooked fresh.
A menu expansion is in the works and when he makes enough money to hire some help, Salmerón says he’d like to take a little time off, maybe go on another bike ride.