Know Your Neighbor:
"I wanted my own restaurant. I thought I needed to open a small restaurant at first. So I asked myself, ‘What’s the smallest I could go?’ and I decided on a food truck.”
— Danny Bua
Since making the decision to leap from the world of fine china and white tablecloths to disposable plates and paper napkins a little over a year and a half ago, Danny Bua has realized his entrepreneurial vision with That Awesome Taco Truck, a playful and idiosyncratic take on one of the most basic and popular of all street foods. Bua has won the loyalties of hungry taco lovers throughout Nashville by reimagining the archetypal Mexican fast food, while adding unusual approaches like his sweet potato and collards taco, New England lobster roll taco, and the “’80s Throwback” ground beef taco (combining quintessentially-gringo “McCormick” spiced beef with more adventuresome fare).
A native Bostonian, Bua began his culinary career at the age of 15 with a temporary job at a summer camp. “I was about to go home because it was a four-week run [as an unpaid camp counselor],” Bua says, “but someone in the kitchen got fired. For two weeks I learned about cooking and got paid 150 bucks. When I came home, I wanted to go to culinary school.”
For almost two decades, Bua studied the restaurant business from all levels, working in Boston’s fine dining scene, graduating from culinary school in 1996, and spending three years as head chef of an award-winning Mexican restaurant.
“I never ate Mexican food growing up. There were no Mexican restaurants in the area where I grew up. Maybe my Mom made McCormick ground beef tacos, but that was the extent of it. When the opportunity came to work in a Mexican restaurant, I read a lot of cookbooks, watched a lot of YouTube videos, and tried a lot of recipes. I then sat down with a lot of Mexican and El Salvadorian cooks and asked questions.”
After learning the basics, Bua began to craft his own unique take on south-of-the-border favorites, combining traditional Mexican food with unusual ingredients and methods. By 2013, Bua began to desire new challenges and a warmer climate, which led him and his wife, Lauren McLeod, to Nashville. Bua quickly secured a position as sous-chef at Lockeland Table where his trademark Boston Red Sox cap became a familiar sight.
“One of the things I told [Lockeland Table co-owner and executive chef] Hal Holden- Bache when he hired me is I don’t know everything. There are things that I’ve never cooked before. There are techniques I don’t know and things that I don’t even understand. But that’s okay, I’m never afraid to ask questions. If someone knows something I don’t know, great. I want to keep learning.”
After three years at Lockeland Table, he was ready to begin a food truck adventure. “I was not running a fine dining restaurant anymore,” Bua says. “But I decided to do smaller versions of tacos I’d done back home [in a fine dining setting]. I wanted to make composed dishes on a tortilla. It’s very different from what you’d get at other taco trucks, but everything is on there for a reason — it all tastes good together.”
After securing a food truck and adapting it to fit his needs, That Awesome Taco Truck made its street debut in October 2017. Since then, the playful food truck with the happy unicorn on its side has become a welcome sight on the streets of East Nashville and at many special events. Bua’s wife contributes administrative support while prep assistant Tim Trotter works with him in the truck’s very small kitchen.
“This is the smallest space I’ve ever worked in,” Bua says. “But I have things that I never had in any of the other kitchens I worked in, things that make me happy — Christmas lights, fun stickers on the walls, music playing all the time. If this leads to brick and mortar in the future, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, I’m fine. I’m having so much fun. I get to go to different places, and I’ve created this little happy kitchen where I’m making this great food to share with others.”