As Adrian Molina, 29, walks down the street on a Friday afternoon in May, his familiar face is recognized by eager customers who ask him whether or not he’s going to be open today.
The customers are referring to Molina’s pop-up shop, Flaccos Tacos, which is known for its cheese-encrusted menu items.
With how well recognized it has become along Fourth Street, you wouldn’t guess the pop-up started just a few years ago, out in front of the antique shop Casa de Luxe.
It hasn’t been without its challenges, but since then, Molina, with the help of his partner Simone, has been carving out a legacy on Long Beach’s Retro Row.
Crowds gather in front of the stand where cheese can be heard sizzling on the Blackstone grill as Molina grinds out back-to-back orders until the pop-up shop sells out—which is how Molina wraps up business most nights.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at the beginning,” Molina said. “But I got a groove now… people remember me.”
How it all began
Molina grew up in Huntington Park where, as a child, he dreamt of playing football or basketball professionally.
But by the time his high school sports career was coming to an end, Molina realized that if he really wanted to play at the college level or become a professional, he had to dedicate his entire life to it.
“You really gotta love this sport,” Molina remembers thinking. “That’s when I kept it real with myself and told myself, ‘I don’t love it like that. I don’t love it enough to wake up at 4 in the morning and do camps.’”
After high school, Molina didn’t know what career he wanted to pursue, so he worked several jobs in warehouses and clinics around Los Angeles, where he noticed the majority of the people he worked with were tied down to their jobs due to necessity or immigration status.
Molina, who was born in the U.S. continued on that path for six years, until his mid-20s, when a conversation with a coworker left him re-thinking his future.
He asked a coworker how long he had been working in the warehouse. The coworker responded that he had spent the last 12 years working the same aisle.
“In my head I’m like, ‘I cannot do 12 years here,’” Molina said. “That sounded to me like a prison sentence.”
That exchange stuck with Molina, who ended up leaving to pursue a higher paying job—before leaving that gig to pursue his dreams of being an entrepreneur.
While Molina knew he wanted to be his own boss, he didn’t immediately know what type of business he wanted to own. So he thought back to what made him happy: food.
A lifelong love
Growing up, Molina recalls, he’d spend a lot of time in front of the TV watching chefs like Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse whip up masterpieces in food challenges.
He’d try to copy what he learned. One time, he remembered, he made a spaghetti dinner that was complete with his own garlic butter spread.
He was proud of his creation—up until his mom asked him what had happened to the rest of the ground beef that was in the refrigerator.
Rather than congratulating him for making dinner, Molina’s mom scolded him that day for using the whole pack of meat for one meal.
“I was so heartbroken,” Molina said, adding that he felt discouraged from cooking after that interaction.
Following that interaction, Molina said, he put cooking on the back burner for a while. And it wouldn’t be for several years that he’d consider making a career out of it, using his skills as an athlete to improve his cooking and learn from his mistakes.
“It’s like watching film,” Molina said. “After watching for so many years, you get comfortable.”
A new venture
After feeling comfortable enough with his talent, Molina went to Walmart and bought himself a 17-inch Blackstone grill and got to work on creating what would eventually become Flaccos Tacos.
Molina first secured the parking lot of Casa De Luxe as a location for his pop-up after talking to the owner. At the time, he thought he’d have a different theme each night, where he’d serve a different specialty.
Molina’s opening day—which was themed as a $1 taco night—on Aug. 19, 2019, was so successful that he decided to just keep on making tacos. Eventually, he added more items to the menu, such as quesadillas and the popular cheese-encrusted burritos, inspired by Matt Stevanus’ Lowkey Burritos.
Even through the pandemic, everything seemed to be going well for Molina, who, with the help of his partner Simone, was running the pop-up shop nearly every day of the week.
But after the birth of their son in November 2022, Molina was diagnosed with testicular cancer, forcing him to slow down and eventually cease operations.
When he got his diagnosis, Molina felt frozen. All he could do was stare at the ceiling while his doctor went over what the next steps would be, until he finally came to and asked, “Am I going to die?”
The doctor told him the cancer was curable with chemotherapy, but that they’d have to monitor his options because it had spread to his abdomen, causing a large mass to form.
“I wouldn’t wish cancer on my worst enemy,” Molina said. “I just remember laying in that bed, and I didn’t even want my curtains open, because I’d just see people outside and it’d make me depressed.”
Despite days at the hospital that felt never-ending, and bouts of hallucinations from medication where he thought he was going to die, Molina was determined to get back to working and providing for his family.
In February, Molina was notified by his doctor that although they’d still have to keep an eye on his health, he would no longer need chemotherapy to treat his cancer.
Ecstatic, Molina got to ring the bell at the hospital, marking a milestone on his journey back to full health.
Just a month later, on March 25, Molina was back in front of the grill at the parking lot in front Casa de Luxe.
“It was tough at first,” Molina said about getting back out there while still feeling some side effects from his cancer treatment. “But after the first few orders, I caught a rhythm.”
Now that he feels more at full strength, Molina says he is working to once again open up Flaccos Tacos at all its previous pop-up locations. Last month, in an effort to be more involved with the Long Beach community, Molina’s pop-up participated in the city’s Beach Streets event.
More importantly, Molina says, the time he spent bed-ridden while in the hospital allowed him to reflect on what really matters in his life: his family.
“I let work totally take over, and that’s especially not fair to my girl or my kids,” Molina said. “I kind of take this as a second chance to do things right.”
Flaccos Tacos is open Tuesday and Saturday in front of Case de Luxe at 1930 E. Fourth St. For the hours and information about other pop-up locations, visit Molina’s page on Instagram.