Teresa Mason

Week 2 - April 21, 2011

The performers at our supper + song nights change weekly, but the food part of the equation always remains the same: Thursday nights at imogene + willie mean a visit from the Mas Tacos truck, captained by our dear friend Teresa Mason.

Teresa’s been dishing up some of the city’s best Mexican food since the fall of 2008, when she first sidled her ’74 Winnebago Indian up to the curb in East Nashville’s Five Points neighborhood, slid open the side window, and chirped out a happy greeting: “Buenos dias, y’all!” Despite her unwavering cheery disposition and endearing Southern drawl, Teresa doesn’t just trade on charm: her signature recipes for succulent taco fillings, savory soups, crisp grilled corn (known as elote), and tall glasses of brisk agua fresca (Pineapple cilantro! Watermelon! Hibiscus!) have captivated taste buds citywide.

Teresa recently opened a brick-and-mortar location of Mas Tacos in East Nash, but to her early adopters there’s no replacement for enjoying a fried avocado taco lovingly prepared inside her 23-foot-long Winnie. In the story of Mas Tacos, Teresa’s truck – with its happy blue and yellow paint job and “Mas Tacos Y’all” spelled out in flat letters rising from the roof – has a starring role.

“When I first opened, there were all these rumors flying around about the truck,” Theresa told us while she was prepping the truck for last week’s s+s dinner rush. “Bloggers were saying, ‘Oh, she’s not running a food truck: she lives in there,’ or ‘It isn’t a restaurant: it’s a big art project.’ People had all sorts of suspicions. That was sort of funny.”

The Mas Tacos truck has moved past the rumors stage to become no less than a local institution. Today, the Truck That Teresa Built is a popular fixture at outdoor events in neighborhoods across Nashville. We asked Teresa to share its history with us; of course, she was happy to oblige:

I started selling out of a truck because, to be perfectly honest with you, it was less expensive than opening a restaurant. It was all a matter of resources. When I moved back here from New York, I knew two things: 1. I wanted to work for myself, and 2. I wanted to have a restaurant. At that time, I didn’t see how I could make that plan work financially. I lived in New York City for eight years, and from being there and doing a lot of traveling, I knew that food trucks did good business. And that kind of business was in my budget. So I started looking for a truck.

I originally wanted an old ice cream truck or a step van because those were two options that I had seen that worked. I never considered that a Winnebago would be an option; it just seemed like it would be too big for what I needed.

But one day, when I was coming home from Hohenwald, where I had gone to look at a truck I had seen advertised on Craigslist or something, I was driving up Shelby Avenue and there it was: sitting in a front yard, smiling at me – literally: the front of the truck looks like a face. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute! That’s my truck! That’s it for sure!”

It belonged to a local band that had bought it for a tour and then found out pretty quickly that it wasn’t feasible for them to use on the road, so they wanted to get rid of it.

They had only owned it for a month – I don’t think they had ever driven it: it was just parked in their front yard. They used it as a party space for a while. But they kept it in great condition: when I bought it, it was beautiful. There was shag carpet on the floor and a nice dining area and a bedroom; there was a little bathroom in the back with a sink and a shower. I really felt kind of bad ripping up the inside, but with the help of my brother and some carpenter friends, we did it, and rebuilt it to suit my needs.

We made some changes. We took up the carpet and built some new counters. We have a new refrigeration system and a new plumbing system. The bathroom is gone, but we kept the shower; it’s our mop sink. The stove we use is the original stove, which should explain a lot to people who wonder why we can’t fill orders faster in here.

Of course, we had to meet the health department’s list of guidelines, which were pretty extensive. We did one version and took it in for them to see and they were like, “Ha! Good one.” So we took it back and worked on it for another couple of months. It took a lot more time than I thought it would; I was telling people, “ Oh, we’ll be open next week,” and then we’d find something else we had to do. The whole thing took several months.

The outside of the truck is painted with Benjamin Moore exterior shed paint. All the professionals I talked to told me that I was making a grave, grave mistake; they said I needed to have it professionally done with automotive paint. But I did it my way and painted it myself with a brush; we taped off the lines. I really have to speak highly of Benjamin Moore, because this paint job is two coats from 2008, and it’s still really solid.

I’ve never had much of a problem driving the truck. It’s a little different than driving a regular car or van, because you’re sitting on top of the wheels, but after about the third time out, I was totally fine.

Driving down the road in this truck is awesome, because it’s like you’re always on parade. People recognize it, and they wave and honk at me. People who love the truck really love the truck. It elicits very strong reactions. There have been songs and poetry written about the truck. It’s been in music videos and two guys filmed a sitcom pilot in it. My friends have created pieces of art to go inside. Back in 2009, a couple had their Christmas card picture made in front of it; they sent me one and I have it up on the bulletin board by the service window.

When I first opened and used to park it in the driveway of my old house, people would leave all kinds of notes on it – some good, some bad. It being there pissed a lot of my former neighbors off; they thought it was an eyesore. So I had to kindly tell them that I was sorry, but that it was my driveway; I could park it there. It wasn’t like I was doing business out of it while it was sitting there. The neighbors I have now are all customers and very supportive of what I do. Most people are – it makes them happy.

The Mas Tacos restaurant is located at 732 McFerrin Avenue in East Nashville. Hours are Tuesday thru Thursday 11-4, Friday 11-9 and Saturday 11-3. The truck is a different story: keep track of its comings and goings via Facebook or on Twitter at @mastacos.

-I + W

About our photographer: Mark Tucker is a Nashville-based editorial/advertising photographer. You can see his work at www.marktucker.com. In addition to his commercial work, he is working on a side project photographing and interviewing interesting Nashville characters; see it at www.mydaywith.com. Mark lives about four blocks from imogene + willie, which makes it easy for him to drop by to visit his friend Lale, Matt and Carrie’s yellow lab.