When Alejandro Flores-Muñoz struggled to find the style of tacos in downtown Denver that he grew up eating in Mexico, he decided to open his own restaurant. Only, rather than pay high rent for a brick-and-mortar location in the city center, he started Combi—Denver’s first ghost kitchen taqueria—in December.
The spot is part of a wave of ghost kitchens starting in Colorado. How does it work? In many cases, a company owns the full-service kitchen, and multiple chefs and business owners rent a portion of the space and sell food for delivery or pickup only. Ghost kitchens are a way for people to start restaurants without the large upfront investment that comes with starting from scratch.
Combi, which is based at CloudKitchens at 810 Vallejo Street, showcases the types of street tacos Flores-Muñoz loves the most: ones featuring traditional ingredients, freshly made salsas, flavorful marinated meats like birria (a meat stew often made with goat but Combi makes with beef), and fresh corn tortillas sourced from a local panaderia. “Prior to opening,” he says, “I hit up all my tias [aunts] and uncles and cousins and asked, ‘Hey, how do you make this recipe, how do you make this salsa.’ It’s bringing some of these flavors from my hometown in Mexico [to Denver].”
Flores-Muñoz says the ghost kitchen concept allows Combi to sell street-style tacos in a city where small, family-owned taquerias are often left off best-of lists and aren’t featured at festivals. “I live in downtown Denver,” he says, “and for me to get a good taco I have to shy away from the downtown area and go to Federal or go to places that are more predominantly Hispanic.”
That’s not to say that Flores-Muñoz doesn’t understand the appeal of some of the most popular taco spots in town. Still, he’d like to see more mom-and-pop joints that are making traditional tacos from different regions of Mexico receive more recognition. At Combi, you can order styles from northern Mexico and Jalisco, the state where Flores-Muñoz spent his early childhood, like the aforementioned birria with consommé dipping sauce. The garnishes are simple, but important: fresh onion, cilantro, and house-made rojo and verde salsas, as well as cremas.
“A taco is a taco,” he says. “For me, the way I judge tacos is how much can you bring it back to the tacos that I recall eating from a cart in my neighborhood and less of the extravagant things like pickled onions and braised beef and the big toppings that take away from the traditional taco.”
In addition to serving delicious street tacos, Flores-Muñoz is also using his position as a business owner and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipient to advocate for others who are undocumented and want to start businesses of their own. For him, advocacy and entrepreneurship have always been entwined. Flores-Muñoz moved to Santa Ana, California, from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1997 with his mother when he was seven years old. He went to school in Santa Ana and stayed local by attending Santa Ana College, where he was student body president. Later, he worked with Grassroots Campaigns—a progressive organization that partners with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Democratic National Committee to mobilize citizens—in cities like New York, Boston, and Denver.
In 2018, Flores-Muñoz left a job as a program director at America Votes Colorado to start a poke food truck in Denver, but was met with challenges. As a DACA recipient, he had work authorization, but becoming a business owner was a different story. A 2006 Colorado law states that undocumented workers can’t receive business licenses. This inspired him to work within the system to help clarify the rules by speaking directly with elected officials and professionals like the director of the Denver Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to explain the struggle of receiving a business license as a DACA recipient. During a public event in 2019, according to Westword, he became the first DACA recipient to receive a business license. The opportunity still doesn’t extend to people who are undocumented, however, which is why he continues to push for change.
On April 13, 2021, Flores-Muñoz testified in support of Colorado Senate Bill 21-199, which would repeal provisions of the 2006 law requiring people to prove lawful presence in the United States to receive public benefits and certain professional and business licenses. Lindsey Vigoda, the Colorado director of advocacy organization Small Business Majority, also testified and cited statistics like how there are 32,000 immigrant-run small businesses in the state employing more than 100,000 people. Vigoda also stated that about 37 percent of undocumented immigrants are reporting employment challenges. Opening up entrepreneurship opportunities increases the number of ways individuals can make a living when they need it most.
Business ownership is a way to “build generational wealth for our community,” Flores-Muñoz says. “I want to be able to buy back our blocks. I want people to have the economic freedom to take vacations. I want people to have the economic freedom to not have to live paycheck to paycheck, and I know that entrepreneurship is a viable option.”
In 2020, Flores-Muñoz released a how-to book based on his experiences called No Papers No Fear You Can Do Business Here; as of late April, 700 print copies have been sold and it’s been downloaded for free over 500 times, he says. The taqueria is also expanding. Flores-Muñoz will debut a brick-and-mortar outpost in Littleton called Combi Cafe this summer and runs a smart vending machine inside a Denver apartment complex dubbed Fresco Fridge, a concept allowing patrons to buy oven-ready, pre-packaged taco meals prepared by Combi, drinks, and other items with the swipe of a credit card.
In the future, Flores-Muñoz plans to continue his advocacy work and hopes to do more outdoor events, catering, and pop-ups with Combi to grow the company and give his employees the full-time positions they need.
“Entrepreneurship is on the rise and I want to make sure that, regardless of people’s immigration status, we can use this as a viable option for us to make a living in this country,” he says. “The biggest hurdle is we have to continue to have patience.”