By Amy Antonation | Westword
The hens are on hiatus.
Normally, the coop situated between the storefront and fields on the Diaz Farm in north Boulder would be populated with poultry scratching and pecking at the dirt. But this year, the henhouse is empty and the fields are overrun with weeds. Pepe and Veronica Diaz have decided to take a year off from working their 1.5-acre urban farm and instead focus on running their popular food truck, Tierra y Fuego Taqueria, while preparing to open their first brick-and-mortar restaurant. By this time next year, though, Pepe expects to have all three running full steam ahead, with the farm providing all the produce for the truck and eatery during the growing season.
It will be a far cry from his life just seven years ago. Back then, Pepe was living in Southern California and working as a mechanical engineer, which entailed a brutal commute and hours of sitting in a cubicle each day. The lifestyle was so stultifying that one day he and Veronica packed three teenage children and whatever possessions they could fit into a minivan. “There was no plan,” Pepe says, laughing — just a desire to drastically change their way of life and create a healthier environment for the family.
They landed in Boulder in 2012 and purchased a piece of wedge-shaped property off Jay Road two years later. In a bold move, they bought the land with the intention of offering community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) for their friends and family, even though Pepe admits he had “zero experience” in farming or agriculture — not even a garden in California. YouTube came to the rescue with hours of urban-farming tutorials.
The Diaz Farm started off small that first year, with just twenty customers buying tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and greens, homemade sourdough bread and farm-fresh eggs. While more families signed up the next year, and the year after that, Pepe and Veronica were always looking for ways to increase their income, since it’s very difficult to turn a profit solely from growing food. Since they’d moved to Boulder, they had scoured the area for the Mexican food they were used to eating, and while they found a few places they enjoyed outside of town, they weren’t impressed with Boulder’s offerings. So they decided to launch their own food truck, with Pepe manning the grill and smoker and Veronica making handmade tortillas and salsas.
The colorful Tierra y Fuego truck took its place on the north side of their property in July 2018 and immediately drew crowds, which Pepe counts as one of the biggest surprises in his new life as a farmer and restaurateur. “Mexican food — people flock to it,” he explains, and he’s right: A steady stream of customers pass the picnic table where we’re chatting and head straight for the truck. College students in head-to-toe tie-dye, white-haired retirees sporting Keens and cargo shorts, neighbors with their pups, and whole families with kids of all ages come to order food, wander through the fallow fields, pet Popo (the fluffy house dog who accepts pats and taco bites with equal grace) and relax in the shade.
Last season, the farm produced enough veggies to provide all of the produce for the truck — no mean feat, as Pepe estimates that they sell about 600 tacos per day (smoked brisket is the bestseller) in addition to burritos and gorditas. Pepe sources the ingredients that Veronica uses to make their tortillas locally; rather than rely on Maseca, the powdered masa used by nearly all of Colorado restaurants and tortillerias, he picks up 200 pounds of fresh nixtamal masa each Friday from Longmont’s Las Americas Tortilleria. The resulting hand-pressed tortillas are slightly thicker than average, and their texture and flavor are superior to what you’ll get at the vast majority of Denver and Boulder taquerias.
Those tortillas will be hallmarks at the permanent Tierra y Fuego cantina the family plans to open this fall in a former Subway at 4550 Broadway in Boulder. The restaurant will also have an expanded menu, including breakfast (Pepe’s especially proud of their chilaquiles recipe), fish and shrimp tacos, and beer and wine. And that’s just the start: The couple would like to use the restaurant kitchen to come up with more recipes; they currently have limited access to a commissary kitchen for food prep. Pepe hopes to submit plans for their building’s remodel by the end of the month (the location comes only with a walk-in cooler), and then will aim for a September opening.
But they know that not everything always goes according to plan. Last year, for example, mountain snowpack was lower than average, and the irrigation ditch that runs along the south side of the farm was bone-dry by the first week in August; the family had to halt the CSA program earlier than anticipated. “Luckily, our customers were very understanding,” says Pepe. He credits the community for consistently supporting the farm, even when he decided to take a break from growing food this season — a very difficult decision, he admits, as he sometimes feels he’s letting the community down.
And with all the anti-Mexican rhetoric around the country after the 2016 presidential election, Pepe wondered if he should have changed the name of the farm to something “more American, like Butterfly Farm,” he recalls, then adds, “You know how sometimes you just hear a voice in your head?” He gestures not at his head but at his heart: “And it said, ‘Just show them who we are.'”
He and Veronica want to continue showing Boulder more of their culture with a commitment to their new home that goes far beyond selling tacos. Pepe plans to build greenhouses over his existing hooped rows to extend the growing season, and will replant his crops next year after the land has had a chance to recover. He also would like to start a community bee sanctuary on the farm; there’s room to plant bee-friendly flora on the south side of the irrigation ditch. He hopes neighbors will bring their hives to the farm, then come to work them and harvest honey.
And the hens will definitely return.
The Diaz Farm and Tierra y Fuego Taqueria are located at 2818 Jay Road in Boulder and are open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday.