Josh and Ryan Carrera grew up in San Diego playing sports. They also grew up in the kitchen, learning a range of cooking styles from their grandmother and members from both sides of their family. Josh remembers scrawling the name Carrera’s Tacos in grade school notebooks, with the duo discussing plans and possibilities since well before either had a driver’s license. Together, the brother’s now own and operate a food cart bearing their name, having spent close to two decades actualizing the scheme — not missing a single one of the steps needed to turn a daydream into a damn delicious reality. Operating both from a nondescript culdesac near the Denver Tech Center — outside the apartment building where the two live — and at events and catering gigs across town, Carrera’s delivers the staples of Tijuana by way of Southern California, dashed with fine dining technique. It’s then presented in the decidedly unfussy fashion the food deserves.
While Carrera’s is unfussy, it is by no means inconspicuous. The tacos, burritos, quesadillas, fries and rotating specials are all approached with a champion’s mentality — relying on quality ingredients and a genuine hunger to build what is clearly becoming an inevitable buzz. Throughout their teens, the brothers could be found participating with their school teams, playing basketball, baseball and football. Much of their early competitive sense was gleaned from watching their two older sisters Briana and Tamara, who both got full-ride softball scholarships to James Madison University. The same ambition has been translated to their attitude towards the cart, with the flames constantly being fueled by the pursuit of real excellence. Ryan and Josh compete with each other, and everyone else in the field, be it here or at home.
“If we’re better than the food in San Diego, most likely we’ll be better than the rest of the tacos in Denver,” said Josh.
This isn’t to say the duo is out for blood. Both learned from a young age that cooking is built on nuance, and it’s most of all about community. “We haven’t done anything else since we started working. We were always cooking,” grinned Ryan. “We just like bringing people together. That was always the motivation,” he continued. Their presence in Denver has already landed them a spot at North Side Market, a weekly appearance at the City Park Farmer’s Market and a position as a fan favorite of the Denver Bronco’s offensive line — who have been known to schlep down to the culdesac for some off-hour eats. The competition is friendly — Josh has said that he’s found the scene here to be both inviting and extremely helpful — though it’s clear that when it comes to the food, Carrera’s is not playing. In 2019 alone, the stand took home a win for people’s choice at Chicken Fight as well as a nod for second place in the vegetarian category at Top Taco. “I dunno if it brought us a lot of sales, but it brought us more confidence,” smiled Josh.
The pair are indeed true restaurant lifers, with Josh generally favoring the back of house and Ryan focusing on the front. Beginning their career at a neighborhood pizza joint by the name of Alexander’s, both brothers really cut their teeth during an over five-year stint at Trust Restaurant — a coastal fine-dining spot from James Beard Award-nominated chef Brad Wise. Josh moved to Denver in 2017 after being offered a position at Urban Egg, with Ryan joining him shortly thereafter. Josh then reverted back to the upscale track with a year and a half stretch as a sushi chef behind the counter at Sushi Den. It was during this time that Ryan did much of the early legwork to get Carrera’s off the ground, applying for the business license and handling logistics and red tape. Prior to opening, the brothers executed the majority of the early recipe testing in their own kitchen, helping to tease the project ahead of the actual debut.
“The first 30 pictures we posted to our Instagram was all stuff we were eating at home,” laughed Josh.
After opening in May 2019, the brothers returned home in January 2020 to visit their family and host a series of pop-ups where they tested their food against the cuisine that inspired it. Each of the 10 events sold out to rave reviews, with Josh and Ryan using the trip partially in the interest of researching the evolving scene. Always hoping to remain on the cutting edge, the duo keeps their menu mercurial.
“We take our favorite things from home and try to replicate it or do it better, and do it all in one place,” said Josh. Tacos ($3.50) — with steak, adobada, shrimp, cauliflower or carnitas — are stacked high and topped with delicate micro cilantro. The surf and turf burrito ($13) is a massive undertaking, featuring carne asada, chorizo, avocado crema, fries and a not insubstantial portion of whole shrimp. It’s a juicy affair, with what’s sure to be a growing pile of drenched napkins providing a good sign that Carrera’s is indeed using the good stuff. Be sure to save room for the churro bites ($5) — a perfectly balanced rendition with a sprinkle of salt and house-made horchata anglaise. Or, for a pro move, come back for the weekend brunch service, where Carerra’s dispenses churro pancakes ($12) — which sees a stack of three topped with an almost intimidating pile of what is surely one of the city’s more decadent desserts.
While Carrera’s is currently Denver only, Josh and Ryan have said that they plan to open one in San Diego in the coming years, with longstanding friend Louis Romero behind the wheel. Carrera’s is great in its own right, made better by the fact that this appears to be only the beginning.
Info on where to find Carrera’s Tacos is updated weekly on its website.
All photography by Charla Harvey.