The Desert Leaf — April 2015
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Desert Gourmet
Linda Brewer

Boca Tacos y Tequila: Innovating and Elevating the Taco

Chef Maria Mazon discovered a passion—and a talent—for cooking when she worked as a waitress at Papagayo restaurant in Tucson. “I was waitressing and then I started cooking,” she recalls. “They had me do the weekend specials to start with. The first thing I cooked as a professional cook was a Mexican seafood soup, like cioppino but with Mexican flavor.”

Mazon cooked that first dish when she was 21. At 22 she opened a catering company. “Little by little I kept going, and in May 2010 I opened Boca,” she explains. “I always say getting into the restaurant business was one of the most beautiful mistakes I ever made.”

She didn’t come from a family of restaurateurs; she learned the business instinctively. “I guess I had the instinct of knowing flavors and not being afraid to try new things,” she says.

Through her cooking, Mazon has always endeavored to pay homage to Mexican cuisine. She was born in Tucson and grew up in Navajoa, a city in southern Sonora. Contrasting the food she grew up eating to most Mexican food served in the U.S., Mazon says, “In real Mexican food there’s no yellow cheese, no sour cream, and no lettuce.”

Of her restaurant, Mazon says: “I serve tacos and I’m proud of it. People sometimes think this is a taco stand or a fast-food place, and they expect their food to be ready in five minutes. It takes 20 minutes to prepare my tacos because everything is made to order. I have to get the steak out of the refrigerator and slice it and cook it. I make a good taco and I want to do it the right way. I cook by the day, for the day.”

Boca’s tacos come with a wide variety of fillings: beef, chicken, shrimp, octopus, fried eggs and hash browns, boneless pork, vegetables, tofu. Other menu items include salad, beans, and rice. On Wednesdays Boca features exotic tacos made with ingredients like ostrich and kangaroo meat. “I cook with anything I can get my hands on. I love to try new ingredients,” she says. “Cooking is like working on a blank canvas. It’s a way for me to express myself.”

Boca is located near the University of Arizona campus. There’s a dog friendly patio outside. Inside, the décor is eclectic and the kitchen is in full view. “It’s a complicated little joint,” Mazon says. “I’m proud of it. It’s my home. It’s where I spend my day.”

Worthy of note are the numerous awards on the wall and counter— plaques and bowls Mazon has won in the five years since she opened the restaurant. She has won the Salsa Culinary Challenge 2013 People’s Choice award and Tucson’s Women’s Iron Chef title in 2011. “Winning some competitions reaffirms that I’m doing the right thing,” she says. “But you can be surrounded by trophies and still have an empty restaurant.”

As a young female chef in a largely male culinary world, Mazon has on occasion been told to go back to the kitchen where she belongs, i.e., “the kitchen in the house,” she explains. When people take this attitude, Mazon says “I shut them up by making really good food. Chefs put ourselves on the line every day. You expose yourself to people not liking what you’re doing. We’re competitive with each other; it’s human nature. When people criticize my food, it’s personal to me. My food is who I am.”

Owning a small restaurant means doing every job, from wiping tables to greeting customers to cooking. “If your heart is not in it, you should do something else,” Mazon says. “I cook every morning. My employees come in later in the afternoon, and then I do everything else that needs to be done.”

Boca offers diners an array of craft beers to go with its craft tacos. Other beverages include Mexican beers and an assortment of tequilas, vodka and whiskey. Happy Hour is from 3:00-6:00 every day. Members of the police and fire departments received a discount on their orders.

Chefs frequently cite their home cooking grandmothers as role models. Chef Mazon says, “My mom’s a good cook. My grandma never touched a spoon.” Then she smiles and adds, “The only thing she made was instant oatmeal. Our nanny, who worked for our family for many years, was an excellent cook and I used to watch her in the kitchen.”

Tucsonans are fortunate in having a wide choice of places to eat. Mazon says: “There are so many restaurants and chefs and types of cuisine in town, it’s saturated. I just want to cook what my heart tells me. I don’t want to be like anyone else. I just want to be like myself.”

Boca Tacos y Tequila: 828 E. Speedway; 777-8134.

Chef Maria Jose Mazon offers Desert Leaf readers this recipe.

Shrimp Tacos

8 servings

2 lbs of medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 whole limes, juiced

1 Tbsp Mexican oregano

1 Tbsp garlic powder

1 Tbsp salt

1 Tbsp pepper

2 Tbsp chipotle powder

2 Tbsp canola oil

1/2 c melted butter

Mix all the ingredients together with the shrimp. Let it marinate for 1 hour and then grill or sauté. You can serve this with corn tortillas or in lettuce wraps, topped with avocado slices and the salsa of your preference.

Linda Brewer is a local freelance writer. Comments for publication should be addressed to letters@desertleaf.com.
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