Belly and the Beast: A longtime Steamboat chef cooks up taco history
February 2, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Step aside, Sasquatch. There's a new beast on the mountain.
By now, anyone who has been to Steamboat Resort has probably seen or heard about the Taco Beast — the first resort-owned taco truck on a snowcat in North America. Easier to spot is the long line of customers usually waiting outside.
Tacos, beer and ski resorts. It's hard to get more Colorado than that. Taco Beast serves up high-altitude street food 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Monday, supplies and weather permitting. The beast doesn't do well in a blizzard.
The resort bought the Taco Beast in March 2018 and operated it over the summer. After enough snow had accumulated, shortly after Opening Day, the snowcat made its way up the mountain.
First, it stayed at the top of Christie Peak Express lift. People riding up the gondola could hear music blasting from the taco shack's large speakers. Then, the beast clambered farther up the mountain to its current resting place at the bottom of Sunshine Express.
Just as intriguing as the beast itself is the man who toils in its belly, slinging tacos for hundreds of people each day.
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For the past 30 years, Sean Hengstler has worked as a cook at a bevy of restaurants around Steamboat. He claimed that he's opened at least half of the restaurants in this town, and as he rattled off his track record, that didn't seem like much of a stretch.
"Sweetwater, Tugboat, all three owners of Cugino's, Carl's Tavern under both owners," he said, just to name a few.
Before all that, he competed as a professional ski racer and traveled the country on sponsorships. After six knee surgeries — four on his right knee, two on his left — he got tired of trips to the operating table.
Now, Hengstler has combined those two careers into his most unusual chef gig.
"It's not like any cooking job I've ever had," he said.
With all of his restaurant experience, Hengstler could be cooking gourmet food at a fine dining restaurant. That just doesn't fit his personality.
At 48, Hengstler still has the playfulness of a 20-something. He likes that he can listen to music all day — classic rock tunes constitute the default playlist — while avoiding the din of a traditional kitchen.
"It is the best office view in the world," he said of his mountain digs.
He was also proud to boast, "I am the only one in America who has this job."
During a sunny Saturday, droves of people flocked to Taco Beast, forming a line that extended more than 50 feet from the snowcat. "Mississippi Queen," a ’70's classic from the aptly named band, Mountain, boomed over the crowd.
Dan Luchs, the man who drives the snowcat and works the cash register, cracked open beers for customers and fielded questions. The most frequent: "When do you close?"
"When we sell out," Luchs said. "At this rate — soon."
Inside the small taco truck perched above the snowcat, Hengstler sweated over a sizzling row of tortillas, trying to keep up with orders.
"It's just run, run, run," he said.
At the start of a morning, the Taco Beast stores 60 to 80 pounds of food, enough to make about 320 tacos, by Hengstler’s estimate. Customers can choose from four kinds: beef barbacoa, elk chorizo, pollo asado and tres hermanas (summer squash, pinto beans and corn).
By closing time, and often long before that, he has sold out.
Business has boomed so much that Taco Beast recently hired on a sous-chef to help with orders.
As the afternoon waned on and beer supplies ran low, an employee from the Rendezvous Lodge came by to restock the Taco Beast. Mechanics tended to the 3,000-pound generator that powers the taco truck.
Hengstler said that this support crew makes the entire operation possible.
"They are the backbone of everything," he said.
Operating a taco truck on a mountain, where blizzards and extreme temperatures abound, poses some unique challenges.
"It's a logistical roller coaster," Hengstler said.
"You don't know if the pipes are going to freeze, you don't know if it's going be snowing with 15 mph winds —"
"Oh, that wind!" Luchs blurted. "It cuts right through your soul."
Last weekend, Luchs and Hengstler had to wrap warm rags around the pipes to thaw them before opening time. It got so cold that the oven wouldn't even turn on.
On days like that, Luchs and Hengstler have to wait for the sunshine to come to the rescue.
Despite the challenges, the two men love their jobs. Working at a restaurant that is the first of its kind on the continent, they have even become minor celebrities.
Luchs said that several major news stations have come by to do stories on the Taco Beast: 9News, CNN and Forbes. He's even seen a picture of him and Hengstler inside an American Airlines inflight magazine.
"To be a pioneer is a cool feeling," Luchs said. "We will forever be on the wall of fame in Steamboat."