If you happened to be driving through Woodland Park during the pandemic, you might have spotted a family sitting at a table, selling homemade tacos to their neighbors for $5 a pop.
That was the Martinez de Dios family, who were slinging street food not as a community service but because they didnt know what else to do. Everyone in that family lost their jobs on due to the pandemic, and they were trying to make ends meet.
Our neighbors would come back the next day and order more and more tacos, co-owner Myrah Lopez told NJ Advance Media. We did not expect that, but we were happy.
Eventually, the family saved enough to buy a food truck and appropriately named it Tacos-is-Life-NJ.
Tacos saved us, Lopez said. To all of us, tacos might as well be life. We were so desperate, but we never thought that tacos would be the solution. The food truck was a huge success, and we just opened this storefront in Woodland this past October.
The Tacos-is-life-NJ food truck quickly became popular, even amid New Jerseys the cutthroat food truck scene. Lopez remembers long lines everywhere they went, parking around North Jersey and booking events all over the state.
Now, the same is happening with their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, opened earlier this month.
Yummy broth is what makes the famous beef Birria plate at Tacos-is-Life-NJ.Karim Shamsi-Basha
People love our food. This past Saturday, we had lines going out the door. Lopez said. We use authentic and fresh Mexican ingredients and we put a lot of love into our food. I guess people feel this love, you know?
Its hard to ignore the humility in Tacos-is-Life-NJs story, a small silver lining amid such turbulent times. Theyre far from the only New Jersey eatery to emerge from unlikely pandemic necessity while other longstanding shops closed. Before Cubita Cafe opened in Nutley, Gustavo Gutierrez sold empanadas from his garage during COVID. And Salt Pepper Ketchup in Hawthorne began as a pandemic-era sandwich delivery service.
The restaurant on Jackson Avenue only a few blocks from where they began selling tacos to neighbors is simple but inviting, with scents of coriander, cumin, cilantro and ancho chili powder wafting through the small dining room. Mounds of real Mexican chili peppers sat on a table nearby, next to poblanos, cascabels, and jalapeos.
The chicken carnitas plate is served with beans, cilantro and onions.Karim Shamsi-Basha
Lopez attributes her familys success to one thing: You know this love I mentioned? Lopez said. Its real. Our mom taught us to put a lot of love into our cooking. That means we care about our customers and want them happy, and we do everything to make sure were serving the best. This is happening all the time, always. We owe it all to my sweet mom.
Yolanda Martinez de Dios, Lopezs mother and the restaurants co-owner, remembers her youthful days when her familys life centered around food. When she was young, Martinez de Dios immigrated to the Garden State from Mexico, and now the entire family is is making delicious tacos daily.
We cooked all the time, Martinez de Dios said. We learned how to cook from a young age, and I continued the tradition with my children. It makes me so happy and so proud to see them here doing what they love the most.
The cheese and bean taco is a popular vegetarian option at Tacos-is-Life-NJ.Karim Shamsi-Basha
The best sellers at Tacos-is-Life-NJ are the al pastor, $13, marinated pork with pineapples; the birria, $14, beef tacos dipped in spicy broth and the carnitas, $13, fried pork sauted with herbs and spices. On the vegetarian side, they offer a cheese and bean taco, $10, topped with cilantro and onions.
I tried the birria and the vegetarian plate. The birria was decadent with tender beef in a handmade soft taco. When I dipped it in the broth, my tastebuds sang. The melt-in-mouth beef was well-seasoned and the broth was rich with the right amount of spice. I also sampled some of the bean and cheese taco, simple with soft black beans and melted queso. Dont let the fact this is a vegetarian dish steer you away, the cilantro and onions were the right accompaniment.
We only use family recipes from my mother to bring the authenticity and love into our food, Lopez said. My entire family loves working here and seeing our customers happy.
From left, Issac Echevarria, Myra Lopez, Jessica Echevarria and Elvys Lopez.Provided by Myra Lopez
Tacos-is-Life-NJ is truly a family affair. In addition to Lopezs mother, Yolanda Martinez de Dios, her sister Jessica Echevarria works at the restaurant along with brother-in-law Isaac Echevarria, and fianc , Elvys Lopez.
While walking among the tables to make sure everyone was satisfied, Lopez came upon Yanich Pijuan, a customer whod just finished her chicken enchilada.
This food is the best Mexican food Ive ever had, Pijuan told Lopez with a huge smile. Its actually better than Texas, and I just came back from Texas!
Better than Texas, say no more!
Karim Shamsi-Basha may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram. Find NJ.com on Facebook.