I’ll admit that even after years of experience in journalism, I’m still not quite sure how to handle asking someone questions while they’re working or seem busy.
A small crowd had gathered at the edge of the TJMaxx parking lot, the designated spot for Momma T's Tacos and Things food truck, so after I ordered and got my own food, I sat on a parking bumper a few feet away to let Momma T finish making all of the orders while I ate mine.
Theresa Martinez, “Momma T,” has been serving Mexican street food in Oxford every Friday and Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. since July, but on the day I visited, she was there for the Tuesday evening farmers market.
Theresa drives to Oxford from her home, someplace between Middletown and Monroe, Ohio (but if you ask, she’ll say she lives in Monroe since she doesn’t like Middletown all that much).
Her red pickup truck pulls a small, bright blue trailer with a sign that says “Momma T’s Tacos and Things.”
When customers walk up to the trailer parked in the lot, a whiteboard leans against the side with menu items and their prices written in black dry erase marker. Theresa’s eldest daughter — one of her 10 kids — stands inside taking orders, but Theresa stands outside behind a grill under a tent next to the trailer. She likes being face-to-face with her customers. She likes talking to people and giving people someone to talk to.
I ordered two tacos, one chicken and one steak. Both had meat and cheese piled on two layers of corn tortillas which were grilled until slightly crispy. I had to eat some of the filling with a spoon before I could even fold the tortillas in half, and even then, I had meat spilling out the sides when I tried to pick them up.
I ate both without putting them down, completely satisfied.
“Oh there she is!” I hear someone call out. It’s Theresa, waving from behind her grill under the tent. Her daughter must have pointed me out as the girl who wanted to interview “Momma T.”
“I thought I’d wait for you to finish your orders first,” I say as an explanation for my awkward perch in the corner of the parking lot.
“Talk to me all you want,” she said, motioning for me to come over. “I can multitask!”
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Theresa invites me to stand next to her behind the grill as she finishes cooking the rest of her orders.
As the customers wait for their food, she offers samples of a new menu item: frijoles charros soup, a rich soup with beans and grilled hot dogs. She scoops generous spoonfuls into little styrofoam cups for people to try.
She mainly serves tacos and quesadillas, but she wants to add some soups for the upcoming fall and winter seasons.
Her samples get rave reviews from everyone who tries them. Several people didn’t even grab spoons and just drank it straight from the cup.
“Don’t you just want to curl up with a bowl of this on the couch and watch your favorite show?” Theresa asked. “You bet that’s what I’ll be doing later tonight!”
A few people pay for larger portions, but she’s not too worried about making money on the soup today. She’s confident in her food.
“I just want people to enjoy what they’re eating,” she said. “Then they’ll come back for more.”
And so far, they have.
Theresa would park Uptown where there’s more foot traffic, but she says the City of Oxford hasn’t welcomed food trucks because they hurt small businesses.
“But I’m a small business too, and if I can’t be here, that hurts me,” Theresa said. “The city doesn’t want a food truck here, but the people want a food truck here.”
Before opening Momma T’s, Theresa owned a construction company and made a six-figure salary. In 2011, she left the company after 15 years because she decided that there was more to life than money.
Today she receives disability benefits, which helps pay her bills, but she’s always been a worker — just sitting at home wouldn’t be enough for her. She couldn’t ignore her passion for cooking, either.
“My therapist will tell you my love of food comes from never wanting to see anyone go hungry,” she said.
Earlier that day, she saw two younger boys walking around, and by the way they were dressed, she could tell they were probably from one of the trailer parks. After hearing them say that the food smelled good, she invited them over and made a taco for each of them.
She knows two $4 tacos won’t set her back too badly, and her philosophy is if you have something to give, you give it. She’s sympathetic because she’s been there herself.
Theresa grew up poor. Her mom was an alcoholic and never gave her the love that she deserved. She died in January from lung cancer that Theresa didn’t even know she had. But she loved her dad and would cook for both of her parents when her mother neglected to do so. Her father died in April 2018.
“I wish he could see all this,” she said.
In her short time in business, she’s made a name for herself. She posts on her Facebook page regularly, and just about every post has a comment of someone asking when she’ll be back, where they can find her or how much they enjoyed her food.
She’s tried out various spots in the area, some in Hamilton, some closer to her home, but she’s found the most success in Oxford. The people here, specifically the local resident population, have received her very well, and Theresa says she’s never met a nicer group of people. It makes her job worthwhile.
“It takes everything I have to be here,” she said. She motions down at her ankles, swollen from arthritis and the hours she has spent on her feet. She also has a bad back from falling off horses as a kid and from being pushed down the stairs by an abusive ex-husband.
After a few bad relationships, she was married to a man from Mexico for 30 years. Four years ago, he was deported, and it’ll be at least six more before he has a chance to come back to the United States.
The two still talk every day.
As she’s telling me her story, she tugs her shirt collar up to dab some tears off her face. But she puts on a brave face and greets every customer with a smile.
“Are these for the kids?” Theresa asks a man and woman as she’s waiting for the cheese to melt on some quesadillas. They both nod. “Can they go in the same box?” Theresa asks. “I know how kids can get when their food is touching their brother or sister’s.” They all share a laugh and she scoops both quesadillas into the same container as per the parents’ permission.