All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
There was one thing on the menu. Just after Y2K, Mahbub Zaman’s taco stand was a solo makeshift umbrella and a portable grill at the beehive intersection of Ross and Greenville avenues. The car wash next door buzzed with traffic, so Zaman took a chance on a tiny food stand.
Steak, bathing in marinade for 24 hours, sizzled and covered with cilantro and chopped onion, slid onto hot corn tortillas. It was the only taco available. The condiment was salsa verde. Your steak tacos got bagged up in a styrofoam container for $1.19 each.
Eighteen years later, a heated patio with seating has replaced the umbrella. Signs surround the brick-and-mortar, announcing burritos and awards from such papers as this one. The car wash and Zaman’s flagship joint sit in the shadow of a modernized, sleek McDonald’s. The patio's vinyl whips in the chilly wind, the TV is blaring morning shows, and it’s all evidence: Tacos Y Mas is grown up. What started as one grill and one umbrella is now five locations with a growing franchise interest from third parties.
In 1989, Zaman graduated from the University of North Texas, focusing on finance and banking. He’d traveled to Texas as a student in the early '80s from Bangladesh and found himself clocked into work in the melty, sour-creamy halls of Taco Bell corporate. He moved up from assistant manager to a multi-unit manager at the Bell and 10 years later was promoted within PepsiCo (Taco Bell’s owner at the time). There, he helped Pizza Huts, KFCs and Taco Bells become the fast-food machines that they are in every city in the world.
“That was a corporate job,” Zaman says. “So I went from the field — meaning operating Taco Bell restaurants — to the corporate world, and that didn’t really sweep me that much. I didn’t like the office environment. So I started to explore.”
One idea was to open a grocery store: the Texas Foodland at 2730 Samuell Blvd. He felt like he had a firm grasp on the numbers side of running a business. The store was a bust.
“I thought I could run operations," he says. "I was really wrong in that. I didn’t know enough about the grocery business,” he says with a chuckle.
The taco stand was a different story. One great secret of humans, from chefs to Olympians, around the world: We, the people, have a deep, stupid love of Taco Bell. Who among us hasn't felt primordial cells cry out in surrender-joy at the unsheathing of a Crunchy Taco Supreme? When sour cream fills out that crispy shell, loaded with mysterious ground sort-of-meat, we all turn into I Am Legend bloodthirsties. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Zaman must have felt the force: Tacos are strong in Dallas.
On a recent trip to Tacos Y Mas, the air as cold as steel knives, the Tacos Y Mas patio is empty. The Big “D” taco ($5.29) is bacon, sausage, chorizo, ham, potato, pico de gallo and scrambled eggs on a corn tortilla. It’s served all day, and it satisfies down to the socks.
The steak street tacos are sawdust. The salsa is bright and fresh, but it doesn’t save the powder-dry steak. Tortillas are greasy, providing a hangover cure but little else. Still, they’re $1.99, a price that negotiates with the part of your brain that cares whether it’s good. More breakfast tacos are in order. Extra salsa, please.
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Zaman says there's buzzing interest around franchising his business, but for now, don’t expect many changes beyond the evolving menu. The menu grew after years of homing in on what customers wanted. Local carnivores often asked for carnitas and barbacoa, so Zaman added them to the menu.
Whether or not you’re a Tacos Y Mas fan — there are a dozen taco spots in the area that are serving far more spectacular dishes for little more cash — the story of this spot's quiet rise is something to behold.
It’s also a Texas story, a Dallas tale of one taco stand’s coming of age.
Tacos Y Mas, 5419 Ross Ave. and four other locations.