Tucson Salvage: Blood is Thicker than Aguas Dulces

click to enlarge Starting something real from nothing. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Starting something real from nothing.

A blue and orange 737 jet ascends from Tucson International, still low enough to read the Southwest Airlines logo, and Emilio says, “Staffing is really hard. It’s like no one wants to work.” A dust-devil twists up and vanishes into the South Nogales Highway traffic, and he continues, almost shouting to compete with the jet, now searing directly overhead, “I don’t get it. How do people earn money and get by now?”

Maybe they’re living in a noisy alternate reality of Roblox, Crypto and Insta reels? Not this guy. Yes, with a cheeky wink he nicked the name of his eatery (and a few dish titles) from his fave kid TV sitcom, the hugely popular Latin American show El Chavo Del Ocho, which centered on a precocious street orphan who resided inside a whiskey barrel, and those in his vecindad. But, as Emilio adds, he “wanted to build something real … from nothing.”

This is 25-year-old Emilio Soto, standing in the shade outside his small, bright yellow-and-red colored Deliciocho restaurant. He wears an Adidas ballcap, a COVID mask conceals a coifed beard, and the surrounding Desert Retreat Mobile Home and RV park sits just off right his shoulder. It’s on a roadway beset with gravel and dust, railroad tracks, well-traversed desert, dotted with ramshackle abodes and historic storefronts.

To a casual eye, Deliciocho is perhaps little more than a fiercely hued tortas and raspados stand. It is, as one wet-lipped customer, Anna Marie, noted, “in no man’s land.” But up-close reveals an eatery (walk-up window, no wait staff) built on love, self-belief, family, and a kid whose fascination for food and dessert creation — and business — wouldn’t allow him to sit still in an earlier dental-hygiene career path, much less break his back in the hot Arizona sun like his grandfather.

Anna-Marie says she’s traveled all over the world in the military, a self-proclaimed fan of food. She tells Emilio she’s bringing everyone she knows to this place and how she can taste “the real. And I know, I’m a Mexican!”

Deliciocho opened a year ago, centered in a pandemic. “I remember the first customer,” Emilio says. “Wow, then the third …” Yet business has been good. He is already thinking of opening another.

Tucson-born Emilio talks about growing up on the southside, a half-mile from his restaurant, names the streets where his parents grew up in this “tight-knit community,” how they met and fell in love at 18. Catholic church every Sunday. Now mom works alongside her son, masked, all youthful energy, and she’s a kind of silent partner in the business, matched savings with Emilio’s to launch Deliciocho.

* * *

Emilio’s blue-grey eyes seem to withdraw at any negative narration of life in the real world. Dude’s a positive, unjaded guy, with a slightly weighted air of responsibility about him. Speaks clear, concise Spanish and English, and after a few conversations, Emilio steps beyond the host/customer relationship and a smart, self-reflective kid emerges, one whose family’s well-being, its attendant traditions, and personal self-reliance, are matching poles he holds dear. If such things could be whittled down to actual flavors, as simple as that idea may seem, you could taste it in the foods and desserts served here. No joke.

Emilio’s the eldest of four children, the youngest in eighth grade. He grew up more on the side of what passes for typical, a gamer (“not hard-core, my parents got me PlayStation when I was probably 5”). At Hollander K-8 school, he was placed in the advance GATE program for accelerated learners. “It was mainly bilingual kids” where he learned more about the racism his Mexican antecedents faced arriving stateside than he ever faced himself, which only deepened an appreciation for his family roots.

At Tucson’s Sunnyside High School, he says he was never sidetracked into drugs or booze, “never really dabbled much with it. I never went out much, I would go to football games. I do drink. I mean, you see the families at the fiestas,” he laughs, “it really is a party culture.”

He talks a lot about personal grounding, learning to delicately balance convictions at a tender age. “My grandma’s super-hardcore Catholic,” he says. “There’s things that religion teaches you in terms of values, even morals, in school not so much. I think you have to have school and religion together to open your way of thinking.”

Emilio describes his father as “a good provider, often working two fulltime jobs. One who knows a bit about many different things, and is gifted with a head for business. Says dad’s true occupation is the hustle, and Emilio often worked with him, beginning at age 15. “He’s always thinking what’s next. He’d get bored and move on. Name it, kids’ jumping castles, contract work in homes, used cars, landscaping, a successful raspados shop and a cellphone business...”

His father’s dad, a landscaper, arrived here from Mexico with his wife in 1974, and years later always told Emilio, “You’re going to be one of the nice guys. Working in the office with a tie with air-conditioning. I want you having an education. Do something that’s not backbreaking in the hot sun.”

Emilio adds, “I wanted to make my father and my grandfather proud. My father is an inspiration, for him to be so successful … I don’t know if he ever graduated high school. But he wanted college for me, for sure. I learned business working with him. He’s still teaching me that stuff.”

Well, the post-high school dental college wasn’t cuttin’ it. (But the upside, he says, is he met his wife Brianda there, and thus far they’ve produced a 2-year-old son, Maxemiliano.) Ensconced in a “gray area, between school and not knowing what to do,” Emilio worked with dad, saved coin.

“I researched crypto, but, man, there’s no service offered, I guess if you only want to get rich, it’s OK. It seems selfish. I like proving myself for myself, but also creating something for others to enjoy.’ After a pause, he adds, “I’m already rich in family. And I have these beautiful memories. Little things, like how we used to go to the lake on the weekends. I only want to do well enough to take my family on vacation, to create those memories. I want to pass down what was passed down to me.”

Deliciocho began the day Emilio’s dad drove by the location, saw the for-lease sign after a previous eatery vacated. Emilio made the call. He and his mother wanted to buy it but the building tied in with the trailer park. The kitchen was here, the grill, it was a pretty easy, cost-effective set up and lease. Initially Emilio was going for a raspados shop, like the one his father owned, “a little snack place for after dinner. But I really wanted to cook and create.”

See, Emilio is a food autodidact, a student of flavors and cuisine, and people. (He listens to customer stories, is a big fan of podcasts featuring everyday folk.) Without him knowing, and I only pointed this out days later, our conversations reveal he’s also a quiet apprentice of life, of business, of work, of love.

click to enlarge Three generations of Sotos: grandmother Carmen, mother Carina and her son Emilio. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Three generations of Sotos: grandmother Carmen, mother Carina and her son Emilio.

“I’m really just a street chef,” he laughs. He learned to cook, how to make the food taste the way it does in his head, by testing, by trial-and-error, traveling to Mexico, restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, tasting, tasting, tasting.

“I will say I’m very good at taking things on,” he says. “It started young. My grandmother lived next door, and she was always working in the kitchen, the traditional Mexican dishes. I took it in.”

The familiarity and fusion of family and food is his first association with work. Hard edges get shaved off if the effort is in your blood. But the red-tape business operation stuff provided headaches. City inspections, health and fire, and license hoops through which he leapt made for sleepless nights. “At first starting a business, I have my son and my wife, was hard. The headaches were always there, the uncertainty is what keeps you up at night. The personal stuff, will it succeed, what if it doesn’t? You don’t know until you’re in it.”

* * *

Emilio sits at one of seven round tables in the shaded cinderblock patio, the dining area in front of Deliciocho. (An additional clean line of grounded stools and a bar table face South Nogales Highway, where customers sometimes come to specifically watch jets fly low overhead to and from nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Tucson International.) Aromas of cilantro and simmering frijoles recall a dinnertime living room in a house you wish was yours, and Emilio’s mother, Carina Soto, works the register at the order window.

The sun fades, the red and white string lights glow on, and those are upheld by poles placed in metal-strapped wooden whiskey barrels, another meticulous finger-pistol to “El Chavo.” (One churro dessert here even comes in a hand-held souvenir barrel).

He talks of new fatherhood, his wife, the house they’re searching to buy. And there are no subjunctive moods in Emilio’s Deliciocho conversation. No “I wish I had this.” It’s more like, we created this and this is what happened. He’s not yet jaundiced by business, the staffing, payroll, taxes, and uses his food as launchpad for, as he says, “creativity. Man, I have too much to go for right now.”

Even the colorful menu placards on the exterior wall, all in Spanish, are his own design, kind of Japanese too, as eater Anna-Marie points out. The menu is fluid, constantly shifting and updating, integrating elements of other cultures, and he says that anything vegetarian and vegan can be created. Emilio gets up, busses a table and returns.

What’s essential here, to this story, is the food. Each serving gives off unusual brightness, all homecooked-y with care and respect for the food itself, little tributes to the chosen strawberries or the whole beans or Mexican street corn—from the tacos to the tortas, the wraps and custom ramen, to the raspados and desserts with churros made from scratch. The food stays in recall for days, filled as it is of traditions, new secrets and newer discoveries. Daily fresh tortillas come from El Triunfo Bakery, which sits a few steps away, run by a guy Emilio’s father grew up with. Emilio’s diminutive grandmother, Carmen Soto, into her 70s, doesn’t speak a lick of English, is in the kitchen now making brillas using her family recipe handed down from Mexico. (Street buzz already suggests that her specialty is one of the best in the Southwest.)

More, Emilio just launched his own line of dulces enchilados, a chilito candy, or a spicy treat rooted in a long history of Mexican candies sold by street vendors, already raging stateside in South Texas, and the Southwest. It’s his own recipe, packaged and sold, and available at Deliciocho. The brand is called Del Mercado, launched this day on Instagram (@del_mercado_dulces). As Emilio well knows from debuting Deliciocho, social media is manna from heaven for food startups.

He holds his Mexican heritage in high regard, in life, in business. “That’s why I started the brand Del Mercado, it’s Hispanic culture. It’s so very personal, like when I would go to Mexico, the towns, the centro de la ciudad, all the crafts and street food.”

Days later, and with gusto, Emilio chats family, as if family and only family confirms his own work in the world. There is his tough great-grandmother, who died at 93, her smoking and drinking beer, and so many family yarns—the mother’s side tracks back to Sinaloa, Sonora on the father’s side, the hardnosed work-ethic in the family’s DNA. “It’s a must-do mindset,” he says, “there are families to support. There’s no giving up.”

He nods toward the kitchen to his grandmother and mother, the family traces and steps that led to Deliciocho.

“To think all of it would lead up to them being here with me.” He pauses, “I’ve had a lot of great teachers. Even the name Deliciocho reminds me of my grandfather. We would lay down and watch the show together. He loved it. It’s the memories. No matter what I do, I do things to honor him, to honor
my family.”

Deliciocho is located at 6308 S. Nogales Highway #4, Tucson; 520-294-2600.


Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now worldwide on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. You can also pickup his collection of short stories, Spent Saints (Ridgeway Press).

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