By Anna McKinnon
For the past two years the Tulane community’s infamous Boot Pizza has had a strong competitor: Ruben’s Taco Truck. Night after night, students turn out for his fresh and fast Mexican fusion cuisine. What they may not know is that Ruben Leice is not Mexican at all, but part of the dynamic Brazilian population that migrated here after Hurricane Katrina.
Ruben has been working in the United States for almost 20 years, starting in the food business in New York City in 1995. In 2006 he relocated to New Orleans when Tulane University asked for help after Hurricane Katrina.
“Tulane University and this company I was working for called me and said, Ruben, we need the trucks down here because we have a lot of jobs, but no food. So, coincidentally, when I first came to New Orleans I was working for Tulane,” Leice explains. He spent long, hard days cooking for the Tulane workers. “Sometimes we would start at 5 in the morning and wouldn’t finish until 8 or 9 at night.”
When Tulane no longer needed Ruben’s services, he searched for a way to expand his clientele and a menu that would appeal to the masses. “I had no choice. I had to ask, what do people like in this city? Oh, they like Mexican food. It was something a little different,” says Leice.
While the chef says that he most enjoys cooking his native Brazilian cuisine, it doesn’t fit the dynamics of the food truck business.
“Brazilian food is expensive because you use a lot of steak, a lot of fresh meat. It’s different; like at Brazilian restaurants we don’t have a set menu. I do Spanish food because it’s fast, fresh and inexpensive.
“If you go to a Brazilian restaurant today, each person pays like sixty dollars. It is expensive and people are not prepared to pay this kind of money. Why do Tulane students like me? They can afford to buy my food two to three times a week if they want.”
Ruben’s Taco Truck has become such a hit around Tulane’s campus that the school asked if they could add it to the list of restaurants available on Nola Bucks. And though the Tulane community knows Leice for his taco truck, he also works at a restaurant in Gretna and at the Frenchmen Street hotspot, Café Negril.
While Ruben says that his food is not Brazilian and Mexican fusion, you can definitely see the Brazilian influence. Brazilian cuisine focuses on the natural, fresh flavor of the meat and steers away from a lot of spices and sauces.
“People will ask me if I make my food spicy. If it is too spicy you can’t feel the flavor. You want to feel the flavor of the chicken, you want to feel the flavor of the pork”, explains Leice.
“When you use a lot of sauces it is like you need to hide something. For example, ribs. I love barbeque ribs but I don’t eat them in New Orleans. Why? Because they use too much sauce. You can’t always tell if the meat is fresh or if it is good; you only taste the sauce. You need the flavor. You need to taste the difference. Like for us, we know the difference if it is fresh. When you eat my tacos you know the food is fresh, it’s not like I pulled it out of the freezer.”
Leice’s passion for food and cooking shines through when he talks about his job. However, back in Brazil, cooking was a hobby for Leice, not a profession.
“In Brazil I was an engineer and had nothing to do with food, but I didn’t like this kind of profession. My mom and dad used to say you need to do this because it can make you happy, but I wasn’t happy. I like to talk with people, joke with people, joke with everybody and if I’m happy the money will come,” explains Leice.
Brazilian traditions and cuisine hold strong in the Leice household here in New Orleans. The father of two cooks solely Brazilian food when at home with his family. Leice grew up in a small, city about 300 miles outside of San Paulo, Brazil. Growing up in a poor household, his family did not have the luxury of going out to eat or picking up premade meals.
“Today, that is different, but before we didn’t have all these fancy stores and supermarkets so we had to do everything from scratch. It tastes better that way,” Leice explains.
Leice is not the only Brazilian to find opportunity in New Orleans post-Katrina. Research shows a strong increase in the Brazilian population in New Orleans following the storm. Initially, many worked in the construction business, helping to rebuild houses destroyed by the storm.
Author Annie Gibson describes this time as “Katrina Time, a remembered and desired ideal, somewhat grotesque in nature because it arose out of the devastating ruin in the city, but nonetheless this ideal perpetuates Brazilian immigration to New Orleans even when economic reality in the city today is quite different,” According to Karla Sikaffy, who works for Catholic Charities, “after Katrina, Portuguese speakers quickly became the second largest population behind Hispanics.”
“Basically, most Brazilian people were working construction,” Leice agrees. “Many people have moved to other states, other cities, and many people moved back to Brazil. In Brazil the economy is good, money is good, so there were many people who wanted to move back.”
There are equally as many Brazilians who are forging ties with the New Orleans community. Local Brazilians find similarities between the New Orleans and Brazilian cultures. Some say that the look and feel of downtown New Orleans reminds them of San Paulo. Greyze Vieria, a U.S. resident for 20 years but a Brazilian native, finds that “there is a natural fusion of New Orleans culture and Brazilian culture.”
Leice would not only agree, but he’s helping to make that fusion happen.
This article by Anna McKinnon is published as part of a service learning partnership between NolaVie and the students of Dr. Diane Grams’ sociology classes at Tulane University.