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When Roberto Garcia found an old school bus for sale, his mind raced with possibilities.
At first, he envisioned a kind of RV, perfect for him and his wife, Jennifer Garcia, who frequently travel, to hit the road in. But then, the couple imagined a food truck, one that sold tacos and maybe some sandwiches, nothing too crazy.
More than two years later, they transformed their bus into the Garcia’s Taco Bar, where they create a festive scene at 555 N. Research Place in Central Islip. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday since Memorial Day weekend, music and the scent of large cuts of meats smoking atop an outdoor charcoal grill pervade the air outside the parked bus.
Inside, the couple and three employees take orders, prep sauces and cook even more meat for tacos.
Crowds form and the line of customers stretches down the block. While their are few posts on the truck’s social media accounts, the word got out by week three in business.
“I woke up to my phone exploding with people adding us, people asking ‘Where are you? Where are you?'” Jennifer Garcia said. “We went viral on Tik Tok.”
“There was a couple of people who were very influential, they’re videos had 50,000 views, 60,000 views,” she continued. “I’d say nine out of 10 people who find us, it’s from Tik Tok.”
On Fridays, the Garcia’s said they see many familiar faces, many of whom come from Central Islip and the surrounding communities. On Sundays, those seconds-long video clips inspire families to endure hours-long drives for an authentic experience at Garcia’s.
“People come from all over the states, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and they come during the week and see the bus,” Roberto Garcia said. “That’s the closest they can get to our home, the people that can’t go back.”
Tacos, grilled meats and more
As the name suggests, Garcia’s Taco Bar specializes in tacos. Customers can choose tacos stuffed with steak, chicken, pastor, carnitas and chorizo.
The bus offers various specials, including chicharrón, or fried pork belly, and the churrasco platter consisting of chicken, steak, ribs, pork, rice, beans and tortillas. There is also the shuco, a street food sandwich highly popular in Guatemala loaded with savory and sweet flavors. The bread for the shuco is first covered in chimichurri sauce, then topped with steak, chorizo, bacon, hot dog, sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard, ketchup, mustard, mayo and guacamole.
For drinks, Garcia’s provides house-made seasonal agua fresca, or fresh water juices. They currently offer the purple Jamaican hibiscus and the citrusy and sweet Tamarindo, as well as fresco de crema, a creamy vanilla beverage.
Roberto Garcia’s mission with the menu is to expose people to Guatemalan and Oaxacan food that descends from traditional Mayan culture.
“I always wanted to show the public the true fusion of Mexican and Guatemalan food,” he said. “When you see Mexican food, a lot of people think Mexican City up north, but in the south, there’s Oaxaca.
“There’s a lot of Mayans that share a lot of Guatemalan and Mexican recipes, that’s where mole comes from, all these nutty, seed stews come out of there,” he continued. When you talk about [northern] Mexican tacos or Guatemalan tacos, they’re the Aztecs and the Mayans. It’s two different culinary ingredients and flavors.”
The new business owner said he will soon have a smoker, with which he hopes to offer menu items not traditionally popular in Guatemala.
“We want to introduce a nice brisket sandwich to the Spanish community,” he said. “It goes both ways, when we’re in America, it’s a melting pot. We nee to infuse everybody’s flavors and make a great meal.”
In order to transform his new bus into an authentic Guatemalan eatery, Roberto Garcia shipped his bus down to Guatemala for a renovation.
“Every school bus that gets retired in the U.S. has a bigger market in Central America,” he said. “This is our public transportation.
“In Guatemala, they go from the city to the outskirts,” he continued. “And they’re called chicken buses because [on top], they’ll put live chickens in nets from the states all the way to the capital.”
Down in Guatemala, where Roberto Garcia lived until emigrating to America in 1994, the bus was painting red, green and white and treated to chrome accents. Around the bus, the flag and outline of Guatemala can be found in the chrome.
Perhaps the most important detail, in large green letters on either side, is “Gisele,” Roberto and Jennifer Garcia’s daughter.
“In the U.S., we name boats,” Roberto Garcia said. “In Guatemala, we name buses. They are all owner-operated, so their routes, go by their names of their daughters, or wives or grandmothers.”
It’s a fitting name, as the couple hopes their truck succeeds to inspire their daughter and provide her with a strong foundation.
“I think every person growing up, at some point you figure you’re going to be an entrepreneur,” Jennifer Garcia said. “I’m a business major, my husband works in logistics, I think at some point, everyone dreams of having their own business.”
“We came from a poor family [in Guatemala], so my goal was always to improve myself and have my daughter or my future family be more successful,” Roberto Garcia said. “When it’s time for her to have a family or kids, I want her to have it easy, to have a foundation.”
“For us, it was hard, having two jobs, working in bakeries or at night in restaurants too,” he continued. “This was a big risk because there was a lot of capital involved, but at the end of the day I knew it would payoff.”