When Edgar Yepez dances, it’s impossible to look away. He glides and spins with the seemingly effortless skill of a man who’s been studying traditional Mexican ballet folklórico for 31 of his 37 years, which he has. In the Oaxacan danza de la pluma (“dance of the feather”), Yepez wears a semicircular, multicolored, feathered headdress while leaping and then turning on one foot. He’s flanked by four other dancers, each wearing a similar headdress and shaking rattles while wearing embroidered costumes in bold colors and intricate patterns. The rattles punctuate a musical number dominated by horns. It’s a rousing, patriotic performance of the indigenous Zapotec community of Yepez’s homeland.
Yepez grew up in San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec, a mountainous city of about 100,000 in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He recalls seeing a ballet folklórico performance at the annual Guelaguetza festival celebrating indigenous arts, crafts, culture, and gastronomy. Six years old and enamored at first sight, he pleaded with his parents to let him take classes. Folklórico, the Spanish name for the performance of the traditional, regional dances of Mexico, is an expensive art. His father did not approve. To pay for the leather dance shoes and elaborate costumes, Yepez’s mother sold tortas to customers who stopped at the bus terminus across the street from the family’s home. In 2007, Yepez moved to Austin to live with family. Six years later, he participated in a folklórico festival in Houston and was so overcome with joy from the experience that he established his own dance company, the Ballet Folklórico de Austin, in 2015.
Funding the endeavor wasn’t easy. To raise money, Yepez took to the only other constant in his life: cooking. He enrolled in tamale-making classes. When he felt proficient enough, he sold the tamales to help pay for costumes. He also took jobs in restaurants. For Yepez, the similarities between dancing and cooking are uncanny. “Both feed the soul,” he says. To watch Yepez—a man of medium height, solid build, and tanned skin—dance is to feel the same rush of emotions a diner has when experiencing a life-changing dish for the first time. There are goosebumps, waves of joy in the chest, and a desire for more. A similar sensation results from watching the assertive footwork of tapping and stomping across several regional dance styles, including Veracruzan, Sinaloan, and Chihuahuan. Yepez’s dream of owning his own company began with a studio in his home garage. Shortly thereafter, his friends Luis Fernando Baes and Sonia López joined the group as dancers. (They now have a proper space at East Austin’s Oswaldo A. B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center.)
This year, the trio branched out into food service when an acquaintance approached about taking over a food truck. “It was something we had occasionally discussed for years,” Yepez says. “I wanted to bring more of Oaxaca to Austin too.” The friends named the truck Los Danzantes (“The Dancers”) ATX. From the start, they planned to offer a menu reflective of their hometowns: Yepez’s Tuxtepec, Oaxaca; López’s Tonalá, Jalisco; and Baes’s Palo Alto, Aguascalientes. Baes’s dedication to folklórico and to the food truck is so strong that he commutes daily from Marble Falls, more than an hour northwest of Austin.
When I stopped by, the truck had been in business for only three months in the lot behind the Far Out Lounge and Stage on South Congress. It shares the backyard with a lobster truck, a sandwich trailer, a second bar, and two outdoor stages. But Los Danzantes ATX draws the largest crowd. The truck shines red and is decked out with a chalkboard menu, plus a table decorated with plants and salsas made and jarred by López. Papel picado flags flutter overhead. On my visit, standing in front of the trailer’s window was Yepez, his hair held back by a rolled bandana tied around his hairline. While Yepez is the boss of the dance troupe and López and Baes are members, the latter two take charge of the cooking. “I’m no more than their helper,” Yepez demurs.
Make sure to try the tlayuda, which represents Tuxtepec. Most diners familiar with the large, crispy corn-tortilla dish have heard it described as “Mexican pizza” because it is sometimes served flat with toppings: refried black beans, Oaxacan quesillo cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and perhaps meat. The comparison is inaccurate; the dish is more akin to an intimidating, crunchy quesadilla. At Los Danzantes, it’s served sliced in half, with the segments stacked and topped by the protein. For that, I ordered the cecina. In Oaxaca, cecina usually refers to chile-rubbed salted pork. At Los Danzantes, it is the more-prevalent salted, aged beef, a nod to Baes’s Aguascalientes. The meat is served as a flattop-grilled flank steak, caramelized in spots. The beef retains its juiciness. Take a bite of it in between devouring the folded, thick tlayuda.
Next are the ubiquitous beef birria tacos, which Yepez recommends ordering without cheese. López, who makes the birria, believes the addition of cheese is slanderous. When I asked her why the order of tacos with rich, rejuvenating consommé is served with beef and not the traditional goat as is found in Jalisco, she scoffed. “I don’t like the flavor of goat,” López shot back at me. “In my town, beef is the meat most often used in birria. It’s also the way my mother taught me.” Los Danzantes ATX’s version acknowledges the trending beef variety with its consommé-soaked tortillas. The filling has a comforting, chile-spiked flavor.
López also makes the caramelized, peach-topped chocoflan, a small chocolate cake topped with the beloved Mexican creamy custard. Chocoflan is a staple of Mexican bakeries. I was ecstatic to learn it is available fresh at Los Danzantes, and I wasn’t disappointed. I couldn’t help myself and finished the bantam serving.
Yepez and company are just getting started with Los Danzantes. In addition to testing bacon-wrapped Mexican hot dogs, they plan to add chascas, which are Aguascalientes-style elotes (grilled street corn) served with a peanut–chile de árbol salsa and bone marrow. “We’re just waiting for the right time to introduce it,” Yepez says. That time might be when the operation moves into a bigger truck in October. It’s well-deserved growth. As young as it is, Los Danzantes ATX is already one of the best trucks in Austin and one of the state’s best openings of the year. You’ll give it a standing ovation as you return to order the chocoflan.