"I wanted to be somebody. I was ambitious to have a better house and living," he says.
His ambition--and love for Sonoran-style hotdogs--has taken him from a 6-by-8-foot taco cart to two restaurants, including a large red-and-green-painted restaurant on Oracle Road, and a staff of 39.
Contreras offers a taqueria-to-restaurant success story, and the appeal of taqueria stands doesn't seem to be lost on hungry workers and passers-by looking for quick, tasty food. Driving down Sixth Avenue through South Tucson, there seems to be at least one on each block.
With cheap prices, authentic flavors and outside seating, these taqueria stands offer food that trumps the fast food chains' dollar menus any day. Here are two stands/trucks worth knowing about.
Molcas Mexican Grill
110 E. Grant Road
I stop at Seventh Avenue and Grant Road at a taqueria stand called Molcas.
It could be that the perfect 80-degree weather is helping the food to taste better, but I'm pretty sure my chicken larguchones (similar to flautas) would have been just as great if it were smoldering-hot outside. They are perfectly crisp, and the chicken tastes wonderfully fresh--but what really makes them over-the-top delicious is the salsa verde and sour cream on top.
There are only five other people here--it's about 2 p.m.--eating to the background noise of tejano music. Drink options include fresh lemonade (pulp and all) and horchata, and the most expensive item on the menu is only $5. If you're lucky enough to find a dollar and some change in the couch, that's just enough for a flour taco ($1.41).
Molcas (named after stone mortars called molcajetes) was started by the Serrano family; they also run a stand that used to be a Wienerschnitzel at Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street.
Manuel Serrano says his family tries to make their taqueria stands unique.
"Our difference is that we sell fried Mexican foods, flautas, chimichangas, hard-shell food," he says under the shade of the tent.
Serrano came from Calexico, a California/Mexico border town, and says he worked at El Guero Canelo when he first came to Arizona. He says he wants to offer the food that he always eats at home.
"All the recipes are my mom's and my wife's," he explains. "My goal is to offer Latin-American people and American people the real Mexican food--no shredded cheese, no Taco Bell."
At first, he says, the stands attracted a largely Hispanic crowd, but he says it's a 50-50 Hispanic/non-Hispanic blend these days. They come to his stands to try specialties including quesadillas; he's quick to point out that Molcas uses steak, not carne asada.
Serrano says his goal is to open more taco stands--but even with the success of his first two stands, he doesn't see a restaurant in his future.
"Restaurants are too much of a hassle. It's more authentic this way," he says.
Aqui Con El Nene
Flowing Wells roads
I've been told this place may become the next El Guero Canelo-like success story, because the hotdogs are so good. The length of the line that has formed at the small window of the taqueria truck backs up this rumor.
Four men feverishly prepare the orders in the cramped stand as order after order is passed out the window to hungry, waiting patrons scattered around the stand.
El Nene has all the usual taqueria accoutrements, including a shaded seating area and a salsa bar. Owner Salvador Gastelur says El Nene opened five years ago.
"It's good food, faster," says Gastelur, who came to the United States from Obregón, Mexico, 12 years ago. Gastelur says he includes items on his menu that aren't often found at other roadside taquerias, such as tortas.
After a failed attempt at ordering a chicken torta (there is no bread left), I instead select a papancha. I've never heard of it and don't quite know what I'll be eating, but decide to nonetheless broaden my horizons. When I ask what it is, Gastelur says la papancha is a popular dish in the state of Sonora.
Opening up the tinfoil bundle, I discover a papancha is large baked potato on steroids: It's covered in chicken, bacon and cheese. I can't get even get more than half through the potato, thanks to all of the toppings.
Meanwhile, Patricia Thomas, a first time El Nene customer, is devouring her first papancha. "I think this potato with chicken is really good!" she says, sitting at a folding table.
Not only is la papancha loaded with toppings; so are the Sonoran hotdogs. For $2.25, the dog comes with beans, onions (grilled and fresh), tomatoes, jalapeños and sour cream.
The clean atmosphere and friendly staff make El Nene appealing, especially for someone like Thomas, who is a native Tucsonan but not a frequent taqueria eater. She says eating at El Nene has changed her mind about taquerias.
"This might become an addiction," she says with a laugh. "It's opened up my eyes. ... I
think I'm going to have to start coming here more."