Talking TBT El Gallo: A conversation with Chef Carlos on his journey towards his twist on traditional taqueria cuisine

Front of TBT: El Gallo restaurant

TBT El Gallo has takeout options + a few seats or tables that are first come, first serve. | Photo via @tbtelgallo

TBT El Gallo Taqueria is expanding, and will open a new location in Willow Lawn by September.

We spoke with owner, Chef Carlos Ordaz-Nunez about how collaboration over competition got his dream of running a restaurant from an idea, to a parking lot party, to two thriving taquerias.

Chef Carlos shows off some tacos.

Chef Carlos shows off the Big Papi Chulo, Aloha Fluffy + Slam Dunk Contest tacos. | Photo by RICtoday

“I was 18 or 19, and I started getting jobs in restaurants or from corporate places in like, LA or Detroit,” Carlos said. “I’d take any position there just to be in that environment, just to see how kitchens are run, and how chefs approach things … And that’s how I learned.”

Working in the kitchen is no easy task. It’s fast-paced, but takes long hours of problem-solving, prep, and lots of cleanup. Carlos said the hard work and hustle is exactly where he thrives.

“I love working in restaurants,” Carlos said. “To me, it’s such a cool feeling to see all these people from different walks of life coming together.”

The Ordaz-Nunez family moved to the Mechanicsville area about a decade ago. When Carlos was laid off from a DC job in 2020, he made his way back to Central VA. He started working at the Iron Horse Restaurant, but got inspired by the amount of pop-up restaurants and food trucks all over town like Cobra Burger and Sincero.

“While [Sincero and TBT] are both Mexican food, we’re on different parts of the spectrum, and Richmond needs that,” Carlos said. “We’re going to be respectful of these flavors … but be unique.”

While workshopping new recipes, Carlos asks himself: What is the most ridiculous thing I can do?

Sign in front of TBT El Gallo.

“All Heart, All Hustle” is the motto Carlos created himself. | Photo by RICtoday

He uses his childhood as an inspiration for some key parts of his menu as well, like the slew of street-style fries.

“People get shooketh when they see the fries, people love them from Mexico,” Carlos said. “Chorizo, chicken, and cheese with these thick potatoes — you could start a holy war between french fry options.”

Carlos said not to get too comfortable with what’s on the menu right now. He’s always changing up the recipes for his classics and his new creations.

“My staff makes fun of me because I’m always trying to add more flavor or make things better,” Carlos said. “Is that the salsa poblano recipe? No, that was what we were using five months ago…”

One way Carlos sticks to Mexican tradition is in the name of the restaurant itself. TBT (short for Totally Badass Taqueria,) is what he told his former co-workers about his dream concept. El Gallo, Spanish for “The Rooster,” has been his nickname since he was a child. Mexican spots in Mexico often add the owner’s last name to identify their storefronts.

With this new expansion, Carlos wanted the community who helped him get here to be involved with its growth. So, he’s working with WeFunder, so Richmonders can invest in the restaurant, and prosper with it.

He says every customer who stops in for a taco is a part of TBT’s mission to share an immigrant’s sons’ heritage with Mexican traditional + unique cuisine.

As we tried out some Aloha Fluffy tacos together, he said it’s hard to believe the restaurant has come this far so fast.

“Väsen Brewing was actually the first one that really gave us a platform a year and a half ago, where we cooked in the parking lot,” he said.

The owners of Väsen helped him get the city connections needed to acquire his current 600-square-foot spot at 2118 W. Cary Street. Now, he’s working on a beer collaboration to sell in the new location, amongst other local ales and wine.

Carlos brought up how collaborative + tightly knit Richmond is — and said the point proves true especially in the restaurant industry.

“Hospitality, and to cook food, is a pure expression of love,” Carlos said. “The fact that people come here, eat the food and they f—k with it, it makes the 36-48 hours of prep work worth it. This place is my favorite in the world.”

Ready to order? Be sure to check TBT social media for hours + specials before you go.

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