The Taco Shop, known to many as Secret Taco, combines authenticity with community
By JENNA MASON
In 1997, with little to-do and only a modest door sign, Pedro Leyva opened a taco shop. The sign read “Mundo Latino,” but the spot quickly earned the nickname “Secret Taco” among English-speaking patrons who stumbled on the storefront wedged between an antique store and a realty company in Oxford’s Old Town Square.
Seven years later, a group of students who frequented the restaurant suggested Leyva mount a larger sign to attract more customers. Soon “The Taco Shop” was visible in bold letters all the way from University Avenue. Still, the “Secret Taco” moniker stuck.
Those students have come and gone, along with whoever first coined the nickname. According to Leyva, that university-town transience has been a boon for Mundo Latino. The small taquería doesn’t receive or require the same media attention as the town’s better-known chefs or higher-end restaurants; it has long relied on devotees to spread the taco gospel to each new batch of Oxford arrivals.
The effect of their enthusiasm is especially evident at dinnertime and on the weekends, when crowds reflect the Oxford most Oxonians know: approximately 97 percent non-Hispanic and inclined to celebrate the town’s burgeoning culinary scene. Hungry students, savvy professionals and starving artists savor the variety of taco offerings: al pastor (barbecue), pollo (chicken), chorizo (sausage), along with cabeza (head) or lengua (tongue) for the more adventurous.
The mostly-Spanish menu, the staccato of televised Mexican noticias (news), the fact that each $1.75 taco comes dressed with only cilantro and onion and accompanied by a lime wedge—these lend a sense of ‘authenticity’ many Americans seek from immigrant-owned restaurants. A name like “Secret Taco” amplifies the in-the-know status that comes with dining here.
Lunchtime tells a different story, though—one that has little to do with mainstream Oxford’s culinary curiosity.
At lunchtime, Mundo Latino belongs to Oxford’s Latino community. More native Spanish- than English-speakers occupy the booths and tables, and bowls of off-the-menu menudo (tripe soup) pass through the dining room unnoticed by the handful of Anglo eaters. Many of the latter come in the company of construction crews who order for them and educate them on each dish.
One shelf-lined wall offers a wealth of Latin groceries, and the freezer to the right of the entrance peddles paletas (popsicles) in distinctly Mexican flavors: horchata (sweetened rice milk), piña (pineapple), chamoy (chile-spiced pickled fruit), arroz (rice). Traditional Mexican snacks clutter the front counter where members of the Latino community come to cash checks, purchase phone cards, drop off dry cleaning and send money to their families abroad.
“The Latino community here is very small. Everyone knows everyone. They eat elsewhere, too, but when they come here, they see their neighbors and family members.”
– Pedro Leyva
Pedro believes the comfort of a predominantly Spanish-speaking space keeps his neighbors coming to his restaurant more than other establishments. “The Latino community here is very small. Everyone knows everyone. They eat elsewhere, too, but when they come here, they see their neighbors and family members.”
Unlike their non-Hispanic counterparts, these diners don’t come consciously seeking an ‘authentic’ culinary experience. As much as simple nourishment, meals here signal a sense of belonging, a respite from the routine perception that they are outsiders in their own city.
In reality, many Oxford Latinos, like Pedro Leyva, have lived here for decades. Before opening Mundo Latino, Leyva built golf courses in Georgia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and New York. He moved to Mississippi in 1991 to build Oxford’s Grand Oaks golf course. He raised a family and now divides his time between construction and running the restaurant with his wife, Betty, and his eldest daughter, Celina.
As the local Latino population continues to grow (it more than doubled between 2000 and 2010), business at Mundo Latino has kept pace. To accommodate the daily crowds, the restaurant will move into a larger space in early October, just a couple doors down from the original. When I ask Pedro what he’d like Oxonians to know about his establishment, he answers, “Que nos conozcan.”
That they would get to know us.
The aptly named Mundo Latino encapsulates the story of the Latino community in Oxford. Like the restaurant, this community is not new. It has become increasingly visible, and it is expanding. And like Mundo Latino—or Secret Taco—Oxford’s Latino community is no secret at all.
You just have to know where to look.
Jenna Mason is the web editor of the Southern Foodways Alliance.