Judith Herrera is chef and owner of Muy Macho Taco Truck in South Park, Seattle. Since she was a little girl, Judith has dreamed of owning her own restaurant. In the 90’s, Judith and her family immigrated to Seattle. After years of working in the food service industry, Judith and her husband were offered an opportunity to open their first Oaxacan food restaurant. Since that initial opening, they’ve opened La Vaca located in downtown Seattle, and the Muy Macho Taco Truck in South Park. Muy Macho began as a brick-and-mortar establishment and with effects of gentrification fueled by Seattle’s booming economy, the close of the South Park Bridge, and the COVID pandemic, Judith decided to leave the space, streamline her families focus, and put her kitchen on wheels.
Hello, my name is Judith Herrera Torrez. I’m from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Could you please describe your family and the place you grew up in?
My family immigrated to Seattle in the 90s. I left my family —my parents and my siblings—in Mexico. I immigrated here with two of my sisters, I found my husband and I now have three children. I was born in a small town in Oaxaca called Tututepec de Melchor Ocampo. And then I immigrated here, and I have my family and I’m happy because I immigrated to have a family and give them the best possible. And yeah, I have my oldest daughter who has two kids. My second child is a boy, and he studies in South Seattle. And my youngest daughter, she’s nineteen and also studies in South Seattle.
Could you say that you came here when you were about at what age?
About nineteen, twenty years old.
So, you built your cultural heritage here?
What is your cultural heritage?
My cultural heritage is myself, my husband, and my three kids.
How did you learn how to cook?
Oh, it's a really long story, but I can make it short.
My family in Mexico was huge. It was my two sisters in law, my father, my mother, and my siblings, and I used to watch them cook. Later on, we all separated and took different ways. My sisters, my mother, my father and I moved to a different place. My older sisters were already studying, so my younger sister and I had to help our mom. And that is how we learned how to cook, by watching her, and then she would make us cook to help her.
Which adult mentors were important for you growing up and which culinary traditions did they teach you?
Who was important to me? I didn’t get to meet my grandparents. I met my great grandmother, my uncles, my cousins, almost my entire family. It was beautiful, a very beautiful culture where I grew up. We were a large family and we used to all eat together, help each other cook, clean, and wash the dishes.
By what you just mentioned, cooking taught you about unity and spending time with your family, right?
Could you please share with us when your passion for cooking started?
I feel like it is something I have been born with because I have always liked to be in the kitchen helping out. Sometimes I didn’t want to, but I was obligated to. I had to help out because in our Mexican culture, the Latinos, women had to be in the kitchen helping out. That motivated me, I liked to watch my great-grandmother, my mom, my aunts, and my neighbors cook.
Watching the women in your life cook and serve men and using food as a way to make people feel welcomed made you like cooking.
Which special culinary traditions does your family have?
The traditional from where I am from, the Oaxacan coast, is the iguana, the mole, tamales, that is the most, most traditional.
And the food is super good, isn’t it?
Do you have any foods/dishes that are only made for festivities or celebrations?
Yes, for example when there’s a wedding, quinceañera, baptisms, it is very common to make barbacoa de res for such celebrations. Each Christmas, Día de Muertos, there are foods a little different.
By what you’re saying, barbacoa de res is like the main dish for special occasions, right?
The barbacoa, the tamales, the mole.
Have many recipes been preserved and passed down in your family from generation to generation?
Yes, the mole, the barbacoa, the tamales; this is almost the most traditional. Caldos(broths/soups) as well.
Right, and I imagine that less complex dishes might have been passed down as well since you earlier talked about how you grew up around women who taught you how to cook and how to season your food.
Yes, and also seeing it from that perspective, yes, there are caldos, salsas, and many, many more easy dishes.
I would like to ask if you have ever taught or passed down any recipes to your daughter?
Yes, she knows, I'll make her help me. It is very easy to lose the culture here, but yes, I teach my children, they watch me, and she has seen.
[Judith’s daughter] The tamales, the mole de puerco, the tlayudas, everything.
Oh wow, lots of dishes!
Judith and her daughter: Yes!
How have you carried forth these recipes and evolved them? How has the NW region played a role in the evolution of ingredients? How have you played with… how the NW region because we’re very far from Oaxaca, right?
So then the ingredients are not going to be the same, we don’t have the same access to such ingredients as if we were in Mexico, right? So, how do you think being this far away from Oaxaca has influenced/evolved your recipes?
Yes, there are stores, places where you can find the ingredients, if not, they send them from the state (Oaxaca). But yeah, when I immigrated in the 90s, there were barely Latinos here. There were barely any stores, there was one in West Seattle and that was about it. Now, thank God, we’re full of stores that bring the condiments for the products.
You mentioned that in the 90s, there was a sort of lack of accessibility to such ingredients, how did you make it work?
I used to go to Safeway, I would go to the stores, and to get used to eating here, I would only eat quesadillas. I would make beans, rice, and salsa. But the tortillas they had at the store would have a smell and I had to force myself to eat them. I had to eat, and the cheese was either Monterrey Jack or mozzarella, and I had to make myself eat, I had to get used to it.
Yes, and then the tortillas would be too sweet, right?
Yes, and they would give off an odor, but it was to prevent the tortillas from spoiling. Sometimes, I would buy maseca (corn flour) and I would make them, to prepare them because I wasn’t… I wasn’t happy, to be honest.
The good thing is that now that there’s more access to the ingredients, you can prepare your food in any way you want.
In any way I want, that’s true.
Could you tell us how your family’s kitchen was different from your kitchen now?
The kitchen from my family in Mexico is very different because the kitchen we had was outdoors and you would have all the ingredients you would need. And here, you have to have a local business and space you have your kitchen. Sometimes I couldn’t find all the ingredients I needed, and I had to replace them for something similar, right? So, it would be good seasoned. When you like to cook and stuff like that, you start to have an idea on what to do for the food to taste as similar as possible.
Yes, sometimes you have to adapt and learn how to solve problems. And since you have a lot of experience in the kitchen, it is less complicated for you to experiment and play around with different ingredients, right?
Did your family have a farm or garden? Where you guys planted vegetables, cilantro..?
Yes, my father was… a farmer, a rancher, and he had his lemon crop fields, sometimes peanuts, papaya, tomato, chile, all of that… bananas. Yeah, he was a very curious person and I also liked to plant small plants at home.
Do you have a garden where you can plant small plants, cilantro, or anything you like?
I don’t have any fruits or vegetables, but I have my cherry tree, I have peppermint, rosemary, I have plants, I love them.
Where do you get your supplies/ingredients? Are there any local grocers?
Oh, yes. In Restaurant Depot here in downtown Seattle you can find a lot of things, I always buy cash and carry. I also go to the Mexican stores around.
Have any of the ingredients been adapted or changed? How has the NW region played a role in the evolution of ingredients?
I’ll repeat to you again there’s already a lot of access to the majority of the ingredients. Thank God, there are a lot of Mexican stores around here and when I don’t find something, I go to another one and so on, and I find the ingredients I need for the thing I am cooking.
Yes, especially in South Seattle, there are a lot of Mexican stores, so it is like an advantage to have better access to different things. Okay, so now we’re almost at the last section. My question for you is: Why is it important to transmit/pass on your culture, stories and traditions?
So, the culture doesn't get lost. If we teach our culture to our children, it won’t get lost. For example, I know young people that do not speak Spanish and I tell them “Oh, are you Hispanic?”, I ask them that question while I am cashing them out and they say “No, I don’t speak Spanish”, and I am like “Oh, okay”. That doesn’t make me mad, but it makes me sad because the parents are Hispanic, but the children still do not speak Spanish. They tell me “It’s because my parents didn't teach me” and I tell them: “Oh, it is not your fault, it is your parents.” And that is sad because they know the language but still won’t speak it to their children so the culture wouldn’t get lost. I speak Spanish to my children at home, we speak Spanish at home because they’re going to learn English at school, they don’t need it at home, and that’s how culture won’t get lost. The rest are going to blame their parents, “my parents never talked to me about this, they never told me.”
I correct my children and I talk to them about our culture, so they don’t lose it because it’s beautiful. Our culture is beautiful, the culture from here as well, but they shouldn't lose ours.
Yes, from what you just told me, for you, language is one of the most important things of your culture, in addition to cooking because you said that you practice with your children right?
Apart from that, for example, a tradition or something like that… because obviously when your children were born, you already followed your own traditions, right? So your daughter will know the traditions.
They already know because I practice them at home or I tell them. I talk to them, I talk to them about my childhood, about the culture and the traditions.
Thank you so much for sharing that.
We are wondering how you see these food traditions evolving? For example, let’s say you already passed down a few recipes to your daughter, right? How do you see your daughter practicing such recipes in the future?
Me, happy. I always tell them not to lose them, and to also share them with their children. I ask them to keep teaching the traditions, the culture, the food, everything.
Basically, you’re asking them to pass down the culture from generation to generation.
The next question is also connected to legacy, what are the challenges and opportunities? For the challenge, something that was difficult for you at the moment of sharing your culture/recipes with your children or somebody else.
I don’t share my recipes, I only share them with my children, my sisters, or someone that is close. But it is never going to be the same because for example, if I am very passionate about food, they are not going to be as passionate if they don’t like it.
Yes, like by what you’re saying the challenge would be that your children would not be as passionate as you are about food…
As me, yes.
Exactly. Okay, and which advantages do you think they have because of knowing how to cook like you?
They are not going to be as passionate because I didn’t go to school, right? A profession, but they do.
They (my kids) are going to have a profession, and I think they are not going to be as interested/engaged in cooking. This country changes, changes a lot, a lot. But she (referencing her daughter) really likes it, “How do you do that? What did you do?” At the taco truck, we are also teaching our son, so in the future, if they like to do what we do, they will have an idea already.
By what you’re saying one of the opportunities they will have is the skill/ability of knowing how to cook, and they will get to pass it down from generation to generation. Also, if anything happens, they will always have the kitchen as a back up as well.
Yes, and also it is very hard because we get burned a lot, and they are not going to want to get burned too, right? **laughs** But I do teach them how to cook, because I want my grandchildren to see and learn the culture as well. Like I told you, it is very difficult to be burning in the kitchen. It's beautiful, I love it, but there's a lot of burns.
Yes, so, in previous questions we asked you how do you see these traditions evolve, and what you’re saying is that every time will be different…
For example, your daughter is not going to pass down her traditions to her children with the same passion as you.
So that’s sort of what you mean?
Are there more people participating and/or practicing the food tradition with you?
My husband, only my husband and I practice the most.
Does he practice in the taco truck too?
Yes, it's a family restaurant, there’s only family there.
Do you go too? (asking Judith’s daughter)
Yes, she does. But since she’s going to school, she goes whenever she can. My son is the one who goes the most.
But it’s cute who you all are practicing such tradition together and…
I love it
Sharing your culture and food to others because customers visit for the culture and their passion for food.
The flavor. I hope you guys visit one day (laughs)
Of course, we will go to take some photos and eat some taquitos (laughs)
Talking about flavor, could you share a recipe with us? You don’t have to tell us the exact measurements, we are happy with whatever recipe you want to share with us.
A caldo or something like that?
Whatever you want.
Whatever you like the most.
The traditional from where I’m from is a seafood caldo. You can do shrimp, fish, and crab. I make it at home and my family loves it. It also contains guajillo chile, if you want it to be spicy, you can add japanese chilis, it also has pepper, garlic, and onion. Ground all the condiments, and in a pot, you add oil, fry it, strain it, and when it boils, you are going to add water depending on how much caldo you are going to make. When the water is boiling, you throw in the fish, the shrimp, the crab, and you add salt. Cut some onion, lemon, and jalapeno to serve the dish. You can eat it with rice if you want, or just with lemon.
My mouth is watering (laughs)
It is super delicious! They really like it.
Judith’s daughter: You put the rice in the caldo
If you want to eat it with rice, you put it in the caldo, and add some cheese (queso blanco), or add cheese to the tortilla too.
Wow, it sounds super delicious. Thank you so much for sharing that recipe with us
We were wondering if you could share how you decided to open the taco truck?
I used to work in restaurants when I first came here, and my husband used to work at a pizza shop. We got tired of working for other people, and we got the opportunity and we were offered a space to open a Oaxacan food restaurant. The space was already in South Park, right? So we went, we opened, and we started working on it, and it was successful. There’s always ups and downs, sometimes you want to give up, but when you want to improve, want to progress, you try your best. You try your best to have something. I opened my restaurant, I had the Muy Macho and because of the South Park bridge, there was a time where we closed, but before, I already had… we bought the taco truck and we have a restaurant downtown, it is called “La Vaca”. and we decided to stay with these two because it was too much work. But yeah,
I have dreamed of having a business since I was a little girl, and I used to play to have a business. Every time I played with my friends, I would play to have a business, and I don’t know why, but I always had it in my mind. I have always wanted to have a business, and thanks to God I did it. I did it, and here we are, and I want to keep going and have a taco truck chain, and well, that’s my thinking.
So happy to hear that you have met your goals, and see, even when we have dreams when we are little, they’re dreams at the end of the day and we as an adult make them become a reality.
Yes, I have always dreamed about that. I’m telling you, I always played with having a business, and I liked to go… I had an aunt who would take me to parks to sell, and I loved it, and that’s how I started learning and kept reminding myself that one day I would also have my own business and thanks to God, I always asked God to help me meet my goals, and he did help me. I believe in God, right? I respect all religions, but I believe a lot in Him because he has helped me a lot. There’s ups and downs, but never give up. Everything in life is possible when you try your best.
Thank you so much for sharing that with us. For how long have you had the taco truck and the restaurant?
Since we started, around twelve, thirteen, or thirteen to fifteen years.
Was it always in South Park?
I started in downtown, then South Park, and I am still in South Park.
So, the “La Vaca” restaurant was first, and then the “Muy Macho” Taco Truck.
Muy Macho, yes, and I stayed with the taco truck.
Why did you name it “Muy Macho”?
The story is that the restaurant already existed. I took it, and we kept the name because my husband really liked it, because he’s muy macho, right? Muy macho is the man… for example there was a picture of a man carrying a woman in his arms, which is muy macho (laughs) that he can do anything. But yeah, my husband liked the name, and we kept it.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Thank you so much for inviting us to share our culture, and I hope that there’s more cultures and people that want to share, so it doesn’t get lost. I decided to come to the interview because I like to share, and to have more customers.