Taco Shack Reigns as TripAdvisor #1 Restaurant in San Pedro
Looking for the best tacos in Belize? Taco Shack, the TripAdvisor® #1 Restaurant in San Pedro, Belize, serves up some seriously delicious authentically Belizean breakfast and lunch. Your taste buds will delight (as will your pockets), but tacos aren’t what you will remember most about Taco Shack.
Isabel Orlando Carballo and his partner Carmen Ramirez are a Belizean couple who own and operate Taco Shack food stand at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye, Belize.
Are you surprised to find a restaurant with “shack” in its name in TripAdvisor’s number one spot out of 172 viable contenders on an island known for its culinary splendor? Well don’t be — authenticity rules on Ambergris Caye and this isn’t your ordinary Caribbean island!
For us at Mahogany Bay, Taco Shack began as our go-to breakfast and lunch spot back in the spring of 2016, providing quick and perfectly tasty, inexpensive meals on the fly. But Taco Shack’s consistent spot at the top of the TripAdvisor restaurant ratings in 2018 has blown us away!
We suspected that something much bigger than burritos was happening at Taco Shack so we paid Orlando a visit to investigate how he and Carmen have grown their tiny food joint to the pure force of homemade goodness that it is today.
Creation of a Taco Empire
It was the spring of 2016 and Orlando had just moved back to Belize from teaching science and English for many years in Mexico. Upon his return, Orlando picked up some handyman work at his cousin Neri’s taco stand, yes the Neri’s Tacos — a San Pedro institution revered by locals and travelers alike. There he met a lovely cook named Carmen, a woman quiet but omniscient, with tortilla-making skills second to none.
In the meantime, Orlando picked up a gig tutoring a local island security guard in English. One morning at Rum+Bean coffee bar with his student, he ran into Mahogany Bay developer Beth Clifford. Overhearing Orlando’s unique British-Belizean accent Beth queried, “Hey Mister — you speak good English! What do you do?” Orlando and Beth got to chatting and before he knew it, Orlando had an appointment to return the following afternoon to discuss entrepreneurial ventures with Mahogany Bay Village.
“Ms. Beth showed me the first Mahogany Bay Village food shack prototype and described her vision of the central grassy area with bandstand that would host concerts, events, and local food vendors. When I mentioned that I had some knowledge of Belizean cuisine, her first question was: how soon could I open a taco shop? I said get me water and utilities and I can open in a week. You see, Carmen was already with me so I knew I had a cook!” recounted Orlando.
And open in a week they did!
Bright and early at 6:00 am on May 2, 2016, the shutters of the tiny wooden shack swung open, and for the first time in their lives, Isabel Carballo and Carmen Ramirez became business owners.
Taco Shack is one of 21 businesses (as of summer 2018) that Mahogany Bay Village has nurtured to fruition, either directly by empowering locals with seed capital and mentorship to enter the world of entrepreneurship, or indirectly by providing assistance to business owners from abroad to expand their businesses into Belize.
From Taco Slingers to Taco Superstars
At the time of Taco Shack’s inauguration, Mahogany Bay Village was still very much an active construction site. In fact, for much of Taco Shack’s first year in business, the majority of their customers were our very own construction crew from Mahogany Bay’s sister company, Caribbean Homes & Exports. When it comes to fueling an all-star construction team working around the clock, quick, delicious, and well-priced is the name of the game and Taco Shack filled that niche with ease.
In less than two years, Orlando and Carmen went from humble taco slingers to the number one restaurant in San Pedro thanks solely to customer reviews. Now it is one of San Pedro’s go-to spots for yummy breakfast and lunch (and as of recently, dinner too!) perfect to grab-and-go wherever your day may take you. In fact, just recently Taco Shack upgraded to a larger shack just a few steps down the road to keep up with the growing demand.
Have you had the opportunity to dine at Taco Shack? If so, Orlando and Carmen would appreciate your TripAdvisor review!
Party of Two
“We’ve been blessed for the two years we’ve been here. But we are operating at a high risk because it depends on Carmen and me only. It is crucial that both of us show up for work, but at the same time that has united us a lot, because we have a project for life together. Just like Mahogany Bay is recently born so is Taco Shack, and we grow together,” said Orlando.
“Carmen has been in the kitchens of San Pedro, Belize since the age of 15. Give anyone else the same exact ingredients and they won’t be able to create what she does. It’s about the method, though she hasn’t told me what it is! If Carmen was ever unable to come to work, we would be limited in the dishes we could provide for that day,” explained Orlando.
If Orlando is the face of the business, Carmen is most definitely the heart. People return equally for Orlando’s wise words and warm demeanor, as Carmen’s wholesome meals made with love.
Knowledge and Tales from Orlando
Q. One recent review from a newlywed couple remarked that you gave some great advice on relationships. Will you share your secret?
A. After a moment of recall, Orlando begins, “Well, the thing is, you never find the perfect wife or husband. It’s all perspective, I call it the three A’s. Appreciation, acceptance, and affection. Once you start appreciating your significant other then you can accept them as they are, and show them affection. If you fake your acceptance you will never show true affection. These are the three basic needs of any relationship. And this leads to a sense of accomplishment that you have found someone to share your affection, and share your life.”
It’s these type of matter-of-fact responses that Orlando is known to throw down at the drop of a hat. This thoughtful man will try his best to give heartfelt advice no matter the topic. Really — try him!
Q. Do you have a favorite customer at Taco Shack?
A. With a grin in acknowledgment of the pedantic nature of my question, Orlando replies, “You know, once my mother asked me, she said Orlando look down at your hand. You have five fingers, right? Well, which one do you like best? Does one work better than the other or do you need them all? This is how I feel about my customers. Every one is unique, every one is necessary.”
Fair enough, Orlando. Well said.
Q. How about your most memorable customer?
A. With a pause and a chuckle, Orlando begins the tale of the Fiasco of Customer Number One. (paraphrased)
There are quite a few customers who are regulars and I know well but perhaps our very first customer stands out in my mind. This Belizean man passes by with a machete the first morning we opened, asking if he could have a fry jack although he didn’t have any money. “I’m doing a little bush chopping job here and when I get paid I can pay you for the fry jack,” the man offered.
So we gave him the fry jack, and the next morning the same thing happens. So after two fry jacks and a juice, his tab totals $10BZD. After that, I didn’t see him again, and he never paid us. Over the next year and a half, I saw him here and there, but he always dodged me or said he didn’t have the money.
I took it like fun after a while, you know, I’d say “Hey John!” John Smith is his name. And John would say, “Orlando look, I know I owe you money, but I no got money.”
“I was just always catching him at the wrong time,” reasons Orlando.
“But would you believe, at last, he came and paid! But the story doesn’t stop there. The next morning John comes back and asks for more credit.” Orlando looks to Carmen in the midst of her food prep and shares a few words in Spanish. She offers a smirk and an eye roll at the whole ordeal.
“No!” I exclaim with a laugh of disbelief. “Orlando tell me you said no, right?”
“No, I said yes!” proclaims Orlando. And believe it, the next weekend he came and paid! Today he is still our customer and runs a tab with us, and he pays it on time.
Sometimes it’s just about showing people trust and having faith in them. I am not getting rich on $10, you know. I figure that if I provide a quality product and a good experience then people will come back. If we deserve the payment then we’ll receive it. People always come back (Orlando).
Q. Taco Shack went from brand new and unknown to the #1 restaurant in San Pedro in less than two years. What is the Taco Shack recipe for success?
A. Our recipe for success? I’d say being genuine, and making people feel welcome and comfortable, which I think comes naturally from my years of teaching. Also enjoying what you do! If we didn’t enjoy preparing and serving your food every day it would show, and the Taco Shack experience would no longer be unique. It’s also important to me that I respond to all of our TripAdvisor reviews, even the positive ones. It’s feedback! You have to close the circle, so I make sure to respond to show our appreciation to our customers for taking the time to evaluate our business (Orlando).
“Also, I let my customers know — all we do is offer tacos — really we are such a small part of what Mahogany Bay Village has to offer!” emphasizes Orlando.
Q. What’s the story behind your first name, “Isabel”?
A. Well on the day I was born in Orange Walk Town, in northern Belize, the person issuing the birth certificate asked my father for my name. My first given name is actually “Abel,” so my father responded “It’s Abel” which was misheard as “Isabel.” So my legal name is Isabel Orlando Carballo, it was just easier to keep the name written on my birth certificate (Orlando).
Hey, it happens!
Q. And how did you acquire your charming British-Belizean accent?
A. Haha, well in the mid-70s you still had these English teachers coming to the primary schools, missionaries, you know. In class we spoke proper English. As a student I got really into trying to pronounce like them. Some kids would laugh, saying why the hell are you trying to talk like the British? Outside of school we would talk Creole, and at home habla espanol con la familia. But when I spoke English I wanted to speak as I was being taught, so I mimicked their accents. After high school, I attended boarding school in Cayo, which happened to be next to the British army camp. So I was exposed again to the (British) English there. I still have British friends. Also, during my years as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in Mexico, they preferred me to use the British English to give the students the experience of the different sounds of the English language (Orlando).
Just Ask Orlando
Do you have questions that need answering? Relationship advice? Belizean history facts? Need tutoring with your science homework? Book recommendations? Creole-Spanish-English translation? Maybe just personal counsel on tortilla vs. fry jack for your morning burrito? Just ask Orlando.
Dropping knowledge and tacos since 2016, Isabel “Orlando” Carballo possesses a certain unmistakable low-key genius that can change the course of your life at best, or brighten your morning at least. Whether you just need a quick set of tacos before your dive trip, or you have a yearning to discuss the meaning of life, it’s guaranteed that you will not walk away from Taco Shack unfulfilled.
A few days after my meeting with Orlando, he rings me up. He forgot to mention that his most influential “mentor” was Ralph Waldo Emerson, because Emerson advocated for individuals to be “self-sufficient and of good character,” and could I please include that in the article?
Emerson was an American philosopher, poet, and lecturer who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was also known for espousing the “infinitude of private man” and doctrines such as “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.” So there you have it, Orlando. But let’s be honest, the real question is: would Emerson have preferred tortilla or fry jack?
Droppin’ knowledge with your tacos since 2016!
— Taco Shack, Mahogany Bay Village