Tampa Bay’s Best Dish: Braised Lamb Shank
Chef and creator of Taco Bus, Rene Valenzuela picks a braised lamb shank from The Refinery in Seminole Heights
How did you get involved in the restaurant world?
I started when I was young in middle school back in Mexico. I started doing tacos for the weekends. On Saturdays, I’d go to the market near my house and bring a cooler full of tacos and sell them on the corner of the bodega. The bodega would sell the sodas, which was great because it was something that I didn’t have to drag around. I would sell my tacos in just a few hours and get a little extra money. I got to the point where people would say ‘here’s the kid with the tacos!’ They were really happy when I got there and they really loved the food. Eventually, when I got to high school, I got myself a taco stand that looked like a hotdog stand. From there I had a brick and mortar restaurant in Mexico. When I moved to the United States, I realized how expensive it is to open a restaurant so I started back in the streets. I had a trailer off Hillsborough and Armenia but about 16 years ago they expanded the road and took my corner. So I started the little Tacqueria Monterrey in Plant City and then took over El Taconazo from my cousin, who was a street vendor, and changed it to the Taco Bus, changing the menu and the hours and everything else. That was 2002.
Why keep the bus involved?
I think the plan was to do a brick and mortar restaurant but there wasn’t enough money so we started with that. And then people liked the bus, so we kept it. It’s just part of the heritage and the way we’ve always done it. Some people think it’s a concept I dreamt up. It’s just the way it naturally grew; it organically went the way it did. It wasn’t one big concept development.
When was the first time you had Chef Greg’s braised lamb shank?
It was about 2 years ago. Lamb shank is a tough piece of meat that doesn’t really get cooked anymore anywhere. But the first time I had it, he had a sauce made from the juices of the lamb and cooked with root beer. It was a funky twist that really played well. I’d never seen anyone cook with the root beer like that.
What do you think makes this one of the best dishes in Tampa Bay?
First, it’s well executed. He obviously knows his ingredients and his techniques. And the flavor that he achieved was something that is based on strong roots because of the way the protein works and the way the dish was made. But it also has a modern twist with the root beer, and you don’t always get that. He’s taken it to another level by making it modern but without killing the traditional cooking style.
Braised Lamb Shank
By Chef Greg Baker, The Refinery
Root beer braised lamb shank with vanilla apple and parsnip purée, and jalapeño spinach
The Refinery is located at 5137 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33603. For more information, call (813) 237-2000 or visit www.TampaRefinery.com.