Q&A: Norma and Ulises Medrano, owners Norma’s Tacos
By Claudia S. Palma
Norma and Ulises Medrano wanted to pump some authentic Mexican food into the Pasadena area. A combination of simple but tasty food and a unique location – a former gas station from 1924 – has led to rave reviews for the taqueria, or taco stand, they opened on Green Street last April.
“We opened as Taco Station because I thought it went with the idea of the gas station but we found out there was already a Taco Station in Riverside so we had to change it,” says Norma.
All the items at Norma’s Tacos – from the carne asada and beans with sausage or soy, to taquitos and burritos – are made to order and the tortillas are handmade daily.
The two Mexico natives (she’s from Sonora and he’s from Sinaloa) rely on their family tradition and some restaurant kitchen experience to create an authentic taqueria experience. Norma was a nanny and caregiver for about 22 years; Ulises worked as a cook in the kitchens of different Mexican and American restaurants for 15 years.
The couple, married a happy 10 years now, share their South Pasadena home with their two adult children from previous relationships.
Now that their dream of running their own business has become reality, the Medranos look forward to keeping busy at the small stand and planning what their next venture will be.
Rose: How did you find this location?
Norma (in Spanish): We always liked this spot. We drove by in December (2009) and saw a sign (for an eatery) that said “Coming Soon.”
Ulises (in Spanish): I always drove down this street and saw this lot and thought that would be perfect for a taco stand. We came by again and then saw a For Lease sign. We signed an agreement the same day we spoke to the owner. There were a lot of twists and turns with the city and permits but thank God everything worked out.
Norma: In three months, we did everything.
Ulises: The owner had the (vintage) gas pumps in storage and one was just refurbished. He asked if we wanted them and we said yes, so he put them back on. It looks great.
R: Why this location?
Norma: In Mexico, the taquerias are small with just a counter (and grill). I liked that (the location) was small and resembled the taquerias in Mexico.
R: What are the challenges/benefits of the small space?
Norma: (The kitchen area) is small but we make it work. That’s why I prefer women working in the kitchen, only women. At lunch time when it gets busy, we’re all moving around and bumping into each other.
Ulises: There is one window only. We thought of adding another one on the side but thought it was too much. Everything goes through that window – orders go in, food comes out. It’s a magical window.
R: How well do you work together? And who cooks at home?
Norma: We like working with one of us inside the kitchen and the other outside with the customers. That’s how we have control and are able to please customers, which is what we want.
Ulises: We used to be open seven nights a week when we first opened then we decided we needed a break so we chose to close Sundays. And we still do catering at least once a week.
Norma: At home after work, each night we sit and talk about the day — what went good, what went bad. Since I started this business, I closed the kitchen at home. I don’t cook at home. I spend the whole day smelling food, I still smell it when I get home. On Sundays, we go out to eat at a nice restaurant with a real plate, not a paper plate. I like all types of food. We also learn (about the restaurant business) when we go out to eat. Robert Simon (of AKA Bistro) has come to the taco stand and he likes it. So we went to his restaurant and we’ve learned from him just from visiting, eating there and the feeling we get being there – it’s good food, fresh.
R: Do you get any ingredients from special vendors?
Ulises: Restaurant Depot (in Los Angeles).
Norma: We get almost all our ingredients there, even the produce. (Ulises) goes every morning. They have everything.
Ulises: We also get our meat delivered fresh every day from a vendor, Picos de Europa. And we get Coca-Cola from the Coca-Cola company.
R: Are any of these recipes passed on?
Ulises: These are family recipes.
Norma: From the moms. My parents had taco stands in Mexico. When I first came to Los Angeles, I had carne asada tacos and it was boiled, the meat had been boiled. It wasn’t good. Ulises’ mom taught me how to make her crispy potato tacos. All this (food) no one else made here. This is all made in the morning, it’s fresh. The beans are different, the carne asada, the cochinita pibil – it’s all different (from other Mexican taco stands here).
R: How did you decide to include vegetarian-friendly dishes?
Norma: We like to eat healthy. Everything we make here is fresh and not greasy. We thought vegetarians also want to eat with their (non-vegetarian) friends so we have something for everyone.
Ulises: Vegetarians like it, too. At times when we did catering, also called Norma’s Catering, we would get more ideas of what vegetarians like.
R: What other items would you like to add – seasonal, temporary or permanent?
Norma: We have fish tacos, Mexico-style, on Friday and Saturday. For us, we started it for “semana santa” or lent. But people like it so we’re going to keep doing that on the weekends. We might add some ceviche tostadas (made of chopped seafood and lime juice) but that’s it for now.
R: What do you hope people feel/experience when they come to Norma’s?
Norma: I hope that they feel good with the food. We have had mostly good experiences with customers so far with just over a year open. We have a lot of great reviews on Yelp.
Ulises: With the economy how it is now, customers are happy with our prices.
Norma: A lot of customers say thank you, because the food is good and the prices are good.
R: What’s next for Norma’s?
Norma: In the future, we hope to open a sit-down restaurant serving authentic Mexican food. I don’t want to say what we’re thinking but something different with unique desserts. Not until we find the perfect location though, just like how we found this one, and in Pasadena. I want to stay here. I love Pasadena.
R: Would you be willing to share a recipe with our readers?
Norma: For two million dollars (jokingly). No, really, I can’t share any recipes. We’ve had people walk up to the window with checks to buy our recipes and I said no, so then they try to ask for my cooks. The most someone offered is $300,000 for a recipe but I said no because this is our life; it’s our business.
1265 E. Green St., Pasadena
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays