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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

A Taco Stand in Every Neighborhood


Civano's neighborhood center.
Civano's neighborhood center.
Photo courtesy Community of Civano, LLC.

When my family and I moved to the New Urbanist community of Civano seven years ago, we looked forward to strolling among the landscaped paths of our neighborhood to a local restaurant or pub. Indeed, for the first month or two, the neighborhood center hosted a café, with its handmade sandwiches and fresh-brewed coffee and tea. Without the resident population required to support such a shop, however, it soon closed.

Then rumors swirled and some meetings were held about Johan’s Tavern, an English-style pub on the corner of Civano’s two primary streets—Seven Generations Way and Civano Boulevard—to be built and operated by Civano pioneer and brewmaster Alan Boertjens. Today the vibrant yellow shell of the tavern anchors the corner, but the restaurant itself seems no nearer to completion.

So we continue to drive to southeast Tucson restaurants that are too distant to walk to—all in different neighborhoods, none with the ambiance inherent in the community of Civano. With a “mixed-use” neighborhood core—where a combination of residences, retail, and restaurants was envisioned from the start—we’re as sublime a place as any for a venue like Johan’s. Why then do we not have a restaurant here? What can the residents of Civano—and any primarily residential, mixed-use neighborhood—do to get a café or pub or other chuck wagon?

Dan Weber and Simmons Buntin at a permanent roadside taco stand in Baja California Sur.
  Dan Weber and Simmons Buntin at a permanent roadside taco stand in Baja California Norte.
Photo by Scott Calhoun.

Queen Elizabeth once said that “a meal of bread, cheese, and beer constitutes the perfect food.” When I’m at my most desperate, maybe that’s all I’m looking for in a Civano eatery: bread to provide my grain staples, cheese for texture and Vitamin D, and beer to help it all slide down. Some may argue, however, that there are health issues with beer. Certainly guys with formidable “beer bellies” don’t help the cause. Recently, though, I learned that these so-called beer guts have more to do with eating caloric and high-fat foods and not exercising than drinking beer. To wit, the average 12-ounce beer has fewer calories than a pair of bread slices, and contains no fat.

A weeklong Baja trip I took with fellow Civano neighbors Scott Calhoun, a garden designer and writer, and Dan Weber, a hydrogeologist, may or may not bear witness. Every afternoon and into evening we drank Tecate, the ubiquitous lager brewed since 1944 in the mountain border town of the same name. A slice of límon added, perhaps, to its nutritional value. Yet on our return, my wife eyed my midriff plaintively and ordered me on the scale. Much to my surprise—given our daily hikes—I gained twelve pounds, more than five percent of my body weight, and was at my heaviest ever.

The challenge is determining whether my new heftiness was a result of the beer or the rich fish tacos we delighted in at almost every meal. The deep-fried filets of dorado surrounded by corn tortillas and cabbage, topped with spiced carrots, salsa, and guacamole…. Though the ingredients differed slightly at each roadside taco stand, none disappointed, at least until I stepped on that scale. Since I cannot return to Baja without drinking Tecate, nor without eating tacos de pescado, the mystery remains.

Cocina Familiar Erendira, a small restaurant serving outstanding tacos along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Baja California Norte.
Cocina Familiar Erendira, a small restaurant serving outstanding fish tacos along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Baja California Norte.
Photo by Scott Calhoun.

Or does it? What our community needs is not to wait for the pub, though I yearn for it dearly. Rather, the time has come for an independent neighborhood taco stand: Tacos de Civano.

Here’s my vision:

Location. There are three options for the taco stand’s location: 1) at the community’s primary commercial establishment, Civano Nursery, where our adjacent arterial and the nursery itself supply steady traffic; 2) at the neighborhood center, in the open area beside the current activity center; 3) at a gravelly area cattycorner from Johan’s Tavern-to-be, on the southeast corner of Civano Boulevard and Seven Generations, which—in the original land-use plan—is set aside as a public transit stop. My preference, because of current lack of use yet wonderful architecture, is the neighborhood center. But the remaining developer’s representative insists, it seems, on driving all things community- and family-oriented away from the neighborhood center, so until she’s gone, that’s probably a no-go. That leaves the triangular patch, which isn’t so bad. It is centrally located within Civano’s mixed-use neighborhood center district, is easily visible, and is a permanent public space.

Venue. Once the location is staked out, we need a facility. Many of the taco stands I’ve seen in Mexico are little more than lean-to’s, with a hinged awning propped to provide shade over two or three picnic tables. North of the border, mobile taco trucks drape a tarp tentlike from the serving window—the delectable taco and Sonoran hot dog stand at an Ace Hardware parking lot down the road, for instance. The general idea can work at Civano and other neighborhoods, too, though I prefer permanence over mobility. We need a civic structure that reflects our community’s indigenous Southwestern architecture, painted brightly to match the desert, with a wide patio of tables, benches, umbrellas, and ramadas. Like the best taco stands, the order and serving window should be broad, welcoming. Let our kids paint the benches, the signs, the wildly colored trim.

The rolled fish tacos at La Hamaca in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja California Norte, could well be Simmons' favorites.
  The rolled fish tacos at the La Hamaca restaurant in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja California Norte, could well be Simmons' favorites.
Photo by Scott Calhoun.

Menu. Bread, cheese, and beer are, alas, not enough to secure the taco stand’s success. It should be second nature for the new haunt to serve local favorites, including fish, chicken, and beef tacos plus hot dogs piled with peppers and cheese. Add chiles rellenos and a breakfast menu with huevos rancheros to the mix and I for one will be in heaven. The offerings can and, from a sustainability perspective, should be seasonal. Secret-recipe salsas, cilantro and onions and peppers, and spicy guacamole—all standard fare, grown perhaps in Civano’s community garden. Beverages will range from coffee and bottled water to Mexican Coca-Cola and beer—Tecate, Dos Equis, Negra Modelo. A wider selection may be necessary at first, at least until Johan’s comes on tap.

All that remains is determining who will create our Tacos de Civano. As a resident, count me in for my small share of venture finance, though my primary role—aside from frequenting the stand, enjoying fresh tacos with family and friends in the aromatic heart of our neighborhood—is to provide the vision. The role of my dear neighbors is to get the enterprise going. What entrepreneurs among us and in our many wanting communities will now step forward? ¡Le saludo!


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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