A drawing of a giant Mexican sugar skull is taped to the window of a former carriage house on 44th Street near Spruce marking the spot: Honest Tom is coming.
Soon, fans of Honest Tom’s Mexican fare will no longer have to chase the truck around the city and hope for no rain or heat waves to get a fix of tasty tacos and iced lemonade. After a nomadic and literally exhausting two years puttering around town, Honest Tom, aka 29-year-old Drexel grad Tom McCusker, is dropping anchor in West Philly. He hopes to have a takeout shop, which would serve tacos and burritos to the hungry, formerly chain-burrito-dependent masses, open by August.
It’s a recent hot afternoon, and the guy behind the grill and the wheel waxes philosophical over a beer at Local 44, a few doors down from the construction zone that will be the new spot at 44th between Locust and Spruce streets. “Right now, if you want a burrito you need to go to Qdoba,” McCusker says. “If you want tacos you need to go to Qdoba. Those places are packed every night, but I don’t know anyone who likes them. This whole neighborhood needs more food options.”
If you’ve seen the truck, you know it. Usually parked right in front of Aviator Park’s golden globe Aero Memorial (20th and Ben Franklin Parkway), Drexel’s campus or in Clark Park on Saturdays, Tom’s is the truck with the bright and groovy collage of tie-dye and swirling patterns, complete with a galloping purple horse and signature sugar skull with pinwheel flowers blooming through the eye sockets. Designed and painted by Shira Walinsky of Mural Arts, the paint job, like the whole operation, has homegrown Philly pedigree.
Unlike a certain other popular taco truck in town, Honest Tom’s isn’t a slick, hip side project running on star power. The self- declared former slacker’s make-it-or-break-it run at guacamole glory is powered by elbow grease, and was launched on a financial plan that would give Suze Orman a stroke.
It all started back in summer 2008 with a bunch of like-minded friends and a motorcycle road trip.
“I graduated college like four years before that and I had a bunch of different jobs— I cooked a little, worked for my dad a little. I was a dog trainer for like a month,” McCusker says.
Unencumbered by responsibilities, McCusker and some of his buddies hatched a plan. “We all had motorcycles that summer and we wanted to go to the farthest place we could,” he says. Target: Austin, Texas.
And it was while chilling in Austin that McCusker bit into a revelatory taco. “I had eaten Mexican food for lunch every day for years, but I never thought about it for breakfast. It was potato, egg and guacamole first thing in the morning! And I thought, ‘I’m going to do this in Philadelphia.’”
McCusker’s life’s work snapped into focus. Combine a guac-laced vision with youthful bravado and possession of a magic credit card that allows frighteningly large cash advances, and next thing he knew he found himself the proud—if bewildered—owner of the former Viva Las Vegans food truck by January 2009.
He spent the winter brainstorming. The name “Honest Tom” was inspired by Honest Lou’s, an exterminator’s storefront around 41st and Lancaster, a bright yellow building crawling with giant painted bugs. He says elder neighborhood heads encouraged him to nix the nickname, but he liked it. “[They said] back in the old days if you said that, it was like being a snake oil salesman,” says McCusker, laughing.
Still stuck on the idea of breakfast tacos, Honest Tom’s hit the road for the first time that summer.
It was a shaky start. Each order took about 45 minutes because McCusker says he had never really cooked anything professionally before except pub grub like fries and pies. He hadn’t worked out sourcing ingredients. He hadn’t worked out much of anything.
“I bought [the truck] without any kind of business plan or menu or pricing point,” he says. “We just kind of parked it.”
During lunch rush at Drexel, Tom’s little brother Matt, then a Drexel student, pitched in. “He just kind of hopped into the truck to help out and didn’t leave for like a year.”
They hustled through it. They figured out what ingredients they could rely on from the farmers market at Clark Park and the Italian Market.
“We didn’t really have any kind of plan, we were just like, ‘Let’s try things and see if things work,’ so the money was going out as quick as it was coming in. We’d be like, ‘Money? Sweet! Let’s go out Saturday and blow it and not work for five days!’”
But then winter rolled around again.
“I didn’t make any money whatsoever,” he says. “Everything went to shit. Luckily it was a cash advance so it wasn’t [a bill collector] calling me up on the phone. I fell behind a little, but I’m getting back on top now.”