Watson Taylor has long been fascinated with the Cold War era, and so when he and Jordan Smith began discussing opening up a food truck and started trying to envision a brand, his mind went to a radioactive place. The two eventually settled on the name Atomic Tacos.
Inspired largely by street food and the diverse culinary scenes in Los Angeles and Seattle, Smith explained that the Atomic Tacos menu is populated with dishes that he and Taylor like to eat. It’s a simple test, but the resulting flavors have led to an eclectic menu for their Flathead Valley patrons. There’s always the choice to keep it simple and go with a trio of chicken tacos, or perhaps an order of carnitas tacos made with pork shoulder braised slowly in a blend of spices, citrus and lard, and then served on corn tortillas with salsa verde, pickled red onion and cilantro.
But one can always stray a bit further from the traditional with something like the chili lime-roasted cauliflower tacos, or even float away on a carnivore’s daydream with a plate of Korean barbecue tacos loaded with crispy, and yet still succulent cuts of pork belly in a sweet, savory sauce and topped with apple cabbage slaw. Beef and lamb gyros served on naan are also offered by the taco truck. There’s only one quesadilla option but it’s a serious one—the birria quesadilla. The slow-braised beef has an almost pot-roast-like flavor and tenderness, and before it’s melted into a quesadilla, Taylor adds cilantro, onion, salsa Roja and cheese to the equation. It comes with a side of rich beef broth, known as beef consommé, for dipping.
Taylor and Smith opened Atomic Tacos to customers on St. Patrick’s Day in March 2022. At the time duck fat fries were on the menu, but they’ve since had to accept that it’s just too much for them to keep up with. Likewise, at one point they were serving tacos al pastor with the meat cut in the traditional manner off a vertically oriented spit known as a trompo. The trompos turned out to be demanding a little more power than the food truck could handle, and so they reverted to an adapted cooking method that allows them to reliably keep the lights on. There was also interest in offering a katsu burger, which is a burger coated and fried in Japanese panko breading. Ultimately, Smith and Watson decided on offering only a spicy katsu chicken sandwich to help keep their workload more manageable.
Both Taylor and Smith are former Scottibelli’s employees, with Taylor having worked for years as a chef in the kitchen, and Smith primarily in the front of the house. Taylor said earlier in life his parents persuaded him not to go to culinary school, and so he worked in contracting. Life eventually led him to work in serving and bartending, before he moved into the kitchen more than a decade ago. Smith’s family has deep roots in Chinook, Montana, but that he grew up in Arizona and California. Family friends in Arizona had owned one of the top 100 wine lounges in the nation, and Smith began working there at age 14, sometimes going straight from school and working until 2 a.m. He went from bussing and dishwashing to eventually serving and working in even nicer restaurants including in California’s Napa Valley.
The connection to Scottibelli’s has offered them a unique situation for a food truck. They park every day in the lot behind the restaurant and have some access to Scottibelli’s for storage and other culinary needs. But at the end of the day it’s the truck that holds everything together. At times the constraints of a food truck may have limited what the two restaurant industry veterans can do, but they’re not afraid to keep experimenting, sometimes through a frequently rotating cast of daily specials. Taylor and Smith hope that the Atomic Tacos truck is a stepping stone for one day opening up a fast-casual brick-and-mortar restaurant.
On how Atomic Tacos got started?
Watson Taylor: We saw each other every day, so we just started talking about food. We talked about food all the time. “Oh I saw this” or “It would be really cool to make this.” It was a constant back-and-forth. I think it was about a year-and-a-half ago we actually decided to do it and start Atomic Taco.
Jordan Smith: Before we started, we talked to people who have food trucks and just went from there.
Watson Taylor: We tried to eat at as many food trucks as we could to just try to get a feel for what people are doing, and what their days are like.
On getting people to try new foods?
Jordan Smith: I’ve been in managing in fine dining, and a lot of that is selling specials, talking to people, getting them to open up and understand what is on the menu. I think that’s fun. It’s kind of enjoyable on my end because I get to explain things to people who are like “I have no idea what this is.” As time goes on all of the locals down here, all of the people at the banks and businesses, they’re trying new things. It’s fun. We didn’t want to be a one-trick pony. It’s not like we have just three items.”
On learning to cook through working in a kitchen
Watson Taylor: It was tough the first couple of years. I worked for Scottibellis for years and they have an old Italian chef from the Naples area who runs their restaurant in California, Miguel. He would come up in the summertime and I learned a lot. If you do things wrong you’re going to get things thrown at your head. He’s very old school.