Stef Soto, Taco Queen


By Jennifer Torres

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 8, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A heartwarming and charming debut novel about family, friends, and finding your voice all wrapped up in a warm tortilla.

Estefania "Stef" Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family's taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family's livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck's unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tia Perla.




Papi had pretty much promised to stop bringing Tía Perla to Saint Scholastica School, but when the last bell rings on a Monday afternoon, there she is just the same, waiting for me in the parking lot: Tía Perla, yet again. Tía Perla, like always. Tía Perla, huffing and wheezing and looking a little bit grubby no matter how clean she actually is. Tía Perla, leaving anyone who comes near her smelling like jalapeños and cooking oil, a not-exactly-bad combination that clings to your hair and crawls under your fingernails. Tía Perla, Papi's taco truck, stuffed into a parking space meant for a much smaller car. A normal car. A station wagon! Something beige or black or white, with four doors and power windows.

I must look as annoyed as I feel because just then, my best friend, Amanda Garcia, stops explaining how she turned an old T-shirt into a new headband and wags her finger. "Watch it, Stef," she warns in her best scolding-abuelita voice. "Keep rolling your eyes like that, and they'll get stuck up there."

I roll my eyes at her so hard they almost bounce off my forehead. She snorts, pulls the headband over her ears, and jogs off to soccer practice, leaving me to deal with Papi and old Tía Perla on my own.

I didn't mind the taco truck when I was younger, and seeing Tía Perla in the parking lot of my Catholic school meant corn chips and cold soda for all my friends. Back then, when Papi lifted me up into her front seat, I was playground royalty. No one else got picked up in a taco truck.

But now hardly anyone else gets picked up at all, let alone in a taco truck.

I've been negotiating for months, trying to persuade Mami and Papi to let me walk alone—not even all the way home, just to the gas station a few blocks away from Saint Scholastica where Papi parks the truck most afternoons. I'd head straight there, I swore. Wouldn't stop for anything; wouldn't talk to anybody. I could tell they weren't crazy about the idea, but this weekend, Mami and Papi had finally given in.

So why was Tía Perla in the parking lot, with Papi in the front seat, waving?

I drop to the ground, pretending to tie my shoelace and thinking, Maybe if I'm down here long enough, Papi will remember our agreement, leave, and meet me at the gas station like we planned.

Instead, he honks the horn and waves even more wildly.

"Uh, isn't that your dad, Estefania?" Julia Sandoval asks, louder than she really needs to.

Just perfect. I stand up and gush, "Thank you, Julia. So much. You are always. So. Helpful."

She just tilts her head and flashes her sparkling-sweet smile.

I walk across the parking lot, eyes glued to the ground and arms crossed sourly against my chest. I don't look up—not even when I'm climbing into the truck—until Papi asks, like he asks every single day, "Aprendiste algo?"

Did I learn something? That I can't trust him to keep his end of a deal, maybe. I keep my mouth shut while I sift furiously through my mental glossary of irritation, searching for words to tell him exactly how frustrated I am. Not coming up with any, I instead shoot Papi a glare that says, Are you kidding me right now? I hope that's clear enough.

His shoulders drop, and he shakes his head. "What can I tell you, m'ija? Those guys at the gas station must have forgotten their wallets or their appetites. Maybe both. I couldn't wait around for customers any longer. Let's see if they're hungry downtown." I don't know what to say to that, and before I can think of anything smart, I hear a bam, bam, bam, bam on my door.

"Huh?" I'm confused for a second, and then I realize who must be knocking. I crank down the window, and sure enough, it's Arthur Choi, all four feet ten inches of him—an even five feet with his hair included. He looks up at me and yanks his headphones down around his neck. They are bright orange and so big he looks almost like he's wearing a life preserver.

"Hey, Stef. Think I can get a ride to the library?" Usually, Arthur's mom picks him up from school, not because she doesn't trust him to walk alone, but because he lives so far away. When she has to work late, he goes to the library to wait for her, finishing his homework, reading his magazines, listening to his music. Without a chaperone. In peace. Arthur and I have known each other since kindergarten, back when his mom and my dad teamed up and trailed the school bus in her minivan anytime our class had a field trip. Unlike my parents, though, Arthur's seem to have noticed that he isn't five years old anymore.

I turn to Papi.

"Órale." He nods. It's a word that comes in many flavors. Sometimes it means "Yes," and other times "YES!"

Sometimes "Listen," and sometimes "I hear you."

This time it means "Of course!" and I slide to the middle of the bench seat as Arthur hops up next to me.

Finally, Papi starts the engine, and as soon as he does, his banda music comes bouncing out of the speakers and pouring—I'm sure of it—right through the open windows. Unfazed, Arthur bops his head right along to the oompah-pah rhythm. I slam mine back into the seat and squeeze my eyes shut.

"Please, can we just go now?"



Papi pulls over at the curb across from the library. I expect him to leave the truck running while Arthur grabs his backpack off the floor of the cab, but instead, he parks, unbuckles his seat belt, and steps outside.

We can't be stopping here, I think, taking stock of the neighborhood on the other side of Tía Perla's windshield. No shoebox-shaped office buildings full of lawyers or accountants or real estate agents, their stomachs grumbling for a late-afternoon snack. No auto-repair shops with impatient walk-in customers looking for ways to kill time while they wait for their oil changes and smog checks. Nothing but neat houses with neat lawns, a basketball hoop in every other driveway. Just behind the library, there's a small playground with a tire swing, a slide, and a couple of benches, and if you weren't an expert in taco truck terrain, you might consider it promising. But I know from experience that you could park for hours at a playground like that and be lucky to see even a dog walker or two. One of them might come up to the window, but just to ask for a free glass of water.

"Arturo," Papi calls.

Arthur lifts his nose out of his backpack, where he's been fishing for his library card. He squints at me, his scrunched-up eyebrows asking, What's going on?

"No idea," I say.

He opens his door, and we both climb down, following Papi's voice to the back of the truck. We find him at the cutting board, about to chop a bunch of green onions. Papi works quickly, dicing a tomato, sprinkling pepper. When he's finished, he presents Arthur with something that looks like a burrito, only it's wrapped in a giant lettuce leaf instead of a tortilla. "Prepared especially for you," he announces with a flourish. "The wheat-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, and meat-free super burrito."

Arthur is allergic to basically everything and is a vegetarian for environmental reasons. Sometimes, between customers, Papi experiments with new Arthur-friendly dishes, claiming the challenge keeps his kitchen skills as sharp as his knives. We add the best recipes to the Official Arthur Choi Menu, a note card taped to the door of the fridge. So far, there's a mango salad with charred corn and slivers of red onion; avocado halves stuffed with rice, green chili, cilantro, and bell peppers; and an almost-overripe banana, cut into coins and sautéed in margarine, brown sugar, and cinnamon until each crispy slice is floating in a rich, caramel-colored sauce.

I'm wondering what inspired this afternoon's lettuce-leaf burrito when I realize that if Papi had time to dream it up between customers, he really must have had a slow day with Tía Perla after all. Aaaand it's possible I overreacted about the whole gas station thing. I glance over at him. Papi looks up at me and winks before nudging Arthur to have a taste.

"Ándale," he says.

"Yeah, go on," I add, curious now. "Try it."

Arthur considers the burrito for a moment, then devours almost half of it in one enormous bite. Papi and I watch, hungry for his reaction.

"Aww-oooohm," he mumbles, cheeks puffed like they're hiding Ping-Pong balls. He swallows.

"Pretty good, Mr. Soto. Not as good as the bananas, but pretty good. Thanks."

"Pretty good?" Papi crosses his arms and cocks his head. "Pués, does it go on the menu?"

Arthur looks at me, looks at Papi, and grins.

"It goes on the menu."

"Órale!" Papi thunders, holding out his hands for Arthur and me to slap. "It goes on the menu. Specialty of the house."

As Arthur goes back to devouring his burrito, Papi locks Tía Perla's kitchen door and gives it a quick tap—the way you might congratulate an old friend with a pat on the back—then hops into the cab and settles into his seat.

Two bites later, when he's done eating, Arthur flashes me a peace sign and pulls on his earphones. Stick-straight tufts of spiky hair spring up around the orange band. "See ya," I say. Papi and I watch him cross the street. Not until the library doors part to let Arthur in, then close again safely behind him, does Papi start the truck.

"Vámonos?" he asks me.

"Let's go." I nod.

We drive to a convenience store downtown where the owner lets us use his parking lot as long as we send customers inside to buy their sodas. It's a fair deal. The little shop isn't the busiest stop on our route, but we know we can count on some regulars: commuters who pull in for tortas and tacos to tide them over on the drive home; gray-haired men in starched shirts who come to the store for lottery tickets and decide a burrito is a good bet, too.

While Papi lifts open the canopy, warms up the grill, and unfolds two steel chairs on either side of a salsa-stained card table, I drag my backpack to the spot at the cutting counter that he always leaves clear for me to finish my homework. He notices me sneaking a handful of corn chips, and before long, a quesadilla, cut into wedges and arranged around a dollop of chunky guacamole, appears on a plate next to my math book. People always ask if I get sick of taco truck food, if I'm bored eating the same thing night after night. But what they don't know is that it's never the same thing. Somehow Papi always prepares exactly what I'm craving. On the hottest days, when my bangs stick to my forehead, there are salads drizzled with lemon juice. When I leave school exhausted after a particularly tough history test, there's the comfort of a plain flour tortilla smeared with nothing but melting butter.

I spoon some guacamole onto my quesadilla and wonder what Mami's up to at home. Getting ready for work, I guess. She's a cashier at the open-all-night grocery store. You would never believe, she always says, what people need at one o'clock in the morning: a box of pancake mix, a birthday card, a cantaloupe. Most of the time, she doesn't get home until I'm already in bed, and since Mami and Papi won't even think about letting me stay home alone, I'm parked with Tía Perla until the dinner rush lets up—it feels like forever.

Finally, though, Papi taps me on the shoulder. He has scooped the last glob of sour cream onto the last super burrito of the day, and it's time to pack up Tía Perla. We take her to the commissary, where drivers from all over the city store their supplies and keep their food trucks overnight. I help him wipe down the countertops and rinse out the big plastic containers we use for storing onions and tomatoes. When we're finished, he tucks my backpack under his arm, and we walk together to our pickup. The lights in the parking lot blaze bright white against the inky sky. I'm wondering how I could re-create the effect with paint and paper when Papi jokes, "Say buenas noches to Tía Perla." I yawn and wave—she looks a little out of place parked next to so many other trucks with flashier paint jobs and shinier chrome bumpers, her tired headlights pleading with us not to leave her behind.



I can remember the day Papi brought Tía Perla home and parked her in the driveway early on a Saturday morning. Mami had been pacing the living room. She wore her green silk dress and black heels as though she were on her way to a party, or to meet someone important. I sat on the couch in the itchy gray skirt I usually saved for church. When she heard Papi honk the horn, she squealed, tucked a stray curl back behind my ear, and grabbed both my wrists.

"They're here!" I yelped.

"Aquí están!" she echoed. The two of us ran outside together.

Mami cleared all three front-porch steps in one eager hop, then stopped short on the lawn and wrinkled her nose. After listening to Papi gush about the truck—the flattop grill and four-burner stove, the stainless-steel walls and brand-new tires—we were expecting a beauty, a champion purebred. This truck looked more like a scruffy shelter rescue, in need of a warm bath and a loving home. The tires were brand-new, but everything else seemed dented or dusty. Still, Papi stood smiling in front of the truck, his chest puffed up proudly, his hands planted on his hips. Mami and I looked at each other, then we smiled, too.

Until that Saturday morning, Papi had worked as a housepainter for a big construction company. He had to leave the house early, sometimes before the streetlights had flickered out, and he always came home with aching shoulders. At night, after he and Mami had sent me to bed, I would hear them whispering at the kitchen table: "But if I could start something of my own…"

After a while, those kitchen-table whispers grew into a roar of plans and daydreams. Standing over the stove, refrying beans, Papi would suddenly burst, "When I open my restaurant, I'll serve all kinds of beans—not just refritos, but black beans and frijoles de la olla, too." His mother, my abuelita, had taught him to cook when he was my age. She didn't know where he might travel someday, she told him, but wherever he went, he would have her recipes to bring him back home. Now, nothing made Papi happier than sharing that warm at-home feeling with others.

Mami would spoon Papi's homemade salsa onto her breakfast eggs, take a bite, and then, with her mouth still half-full, exclaim, "Mi amor! At your restaurant, you must make your own salsa. Promise me, nothing from a jar."

And one sunny afternoon, when I poked around the refrigerator looking for something cool to drink, I asked, "Papi, can there be strawberry soda at your restaurant?" He swept me off the floor and lifted me over his head.

"Órale!" he shouted. "Strawberry soda! Orange soda! Grape soda!"

I giggled, my braids dangling over Papi's nose. "Lime soda! Mango soda! Cherry soda!" Mami shook her head at us and poured me a glass of ice water.

That's when we started saving. When the daydreams became so real we could taste them, as sweet and fizzy as strawberry soda.

Scrimping was harder than I thought it would be, but also a little like a game with all of us pitching in to pinch pennies. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner we ate plain beans wrapped in corn tortillas—so many that I still can't stand them. Mami stitched patches over the rips in my jeans instead of buying new ones. She also took in sewing projects from the dry cleaner's around the corner, gathering needle and thread after dinner and settling down to repair a seam or fasten a button. I thought I could make some extra money, too, maybe walking dogs or pulling weeds. Mami and Papi said no to that. Instead, they put me in charge of making sure we never left the lights on in an empty room, and agreed to let me chip in the nickels and pennies I had stashed in my piggy bank. I poured a silvery stream of coins onto the coffee table, and as the three of us sorted them into cardboard rolls from the bank, Papi put his hand over mine and said, "Gracias."


  • "The core of the story—friendship and the importance of family—wins out, leaving tweens with a satisfying, gentle read."—School Library Journal
  • "[A] well written novel about family and pride and would be a great addition to the library."—School Library Connection
  • "[An] engaging glimpse of food-truck culture through the Soto family's sacrifices, values, and hardships. Once readers get past the drama, they'll cheer for Stef Soto, her family, and Tia Perla."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "This cheery, relatable story features short and sweet chapters with plenty of Spanish words and phrases sprinkled in and a cheer-worthy main character in Stef, a happy, funny girl who adores art above all."—Booklist
  • "Young readers will feel a kinship with Stef as she struggles to spread her wings in this engaging and relatable middle-grade novel about growing up."—Horn Book
  • "The bones of this polished debut are familar...but Torres fleshes them out with authenticity, humor, and heart. Stef's fresh, honest voice will resonate with a broad swath of readers, as will the relatable struggles she negotiates."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Spanish words and humorous banter pepper the dialogue, and the dual stories of the threatened family business and Stef's issues with classmates make a nice, age-appropriate balance that validates Stef's experience while pointing to a world beyond middle school politics. Readers will be happy to snack on this...."—The Bulletin

On Sale
May 8, 2018
Page Count
192 pages

Jennifer Torres

About the Author

Jennifer Torres is the author of Stef Soto, Taco Queen; Flor and Miranda Steal the Show; The Fresh New Face of Griselda; and other books for young readers. She writes stories about home, friendship, and unexpected courage inspired by her Mexican American heritage. Jennifer started her career as a newspaper reporter, and even though she writes fiction now, she hopes her stories still have some truth in them. She lives with her family in Southern California.

Sara Palacios is the illustrator of How to Code a Sandcastle, A Way with Wild Things, and the recipient of a Pura Belpré Award Honor for illustration for Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina. Sara graduated with a degree in graphic design and went on to earn BFA and MFA degrees in illustration from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. A native of Mexico, Sara now lives in San Francisco.

Learn more about this author