Taco Local on Willy Street looks like a friendly neighborhood taco shop, and it is. It’s also a prototype for a pandemic-resistant restaurant — one with benefits and challenges.
David Rodriguez’s new project at 811 Williamson St. is essentially a food cart without wheels. The menu has been streamlined, so similar toppings on petite tacos fit in limited cooler space and the kitchen can be managed by one cook at a time. Prep happens offsite.
Yet the tacos reveal that the efficiency of the Taco Local model may come at the cost of a few other things. Variety, for one. Flavor, for another.
Taco Local opened in late April. Those who remember Underground Butcher’s meat counter and deli will see little familiar in the new space except perhaps exposed brick walls, now surrounding a handful of tables and a four-seat bar. Most striking is the ceramic tableware — striped mugs and plates glazed in teal, brown, cream and green — made by Mark Skudlarek at Cambridge Wood-fired Pottery.
Taco Local wants to meet the neighborhood at as many points as it can, with breakfast daily, family-style taco platters, chips fried to order at happy hour, and a short list of fresh, tequila-based cocktails. Rodriguez shifted from counter service to table service and hopes to build a crew of “industry lifers” by offering $15 an hour plus tips and, starting in August, health insurance.
“We don’t do chef-driven concepts, whether it’s me or another chef,” Rodriguez said. “Then when you lose the chef, you’re starting from scratch in the kitchen again.
“I don’t need to have my name all over as the chef of anything. If I can create menus to train other people to prepare, that works best for our model.”
Catering business boosts prep
This model is what Rodriguez knows best. An entrepreneur since launching the Melted grilled cheese food cart in 2015, Rodriguez also owns International Catering Co. In January 2020, he bought Gaylord Catering.
“Nobody knew then it was a horrible time to buy a catering business,” said Rodriguez, who’d planned to open Taco Local last summer. “The pandemic hit right when revenue season was supposed to start.”
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed everything down, from ingredient supply chains to the restaurant buildout. Rodriguez thought about scrapping the taco project or even shuttering Gaylord, which retained few contracts save a lucrative one with Covance Clinical Research.
If he closed, Rodriguez knew he’d lose that Covance contract (“We feed every study participant, three meals a day, seven days a week,” he said). To keep staff, he tasked the Gaylord cooks with meal prep for Melted’s smashburger operation parked permanently in Wisconsin Dells, as well as a vintage bus that operated as either Taco Local or International Catering Co. For several months, the bus has been parked outside Gaylord on Atlas Avenue.
And on Willy Street, he paid the builder ahead, so that no matter what happened, he’d have a restaurant to open when the world opened back up. It proved a prescient move — “things got pretty hairy. I would have grabbed from the pot I set aside for the restaurant had it been there.”
In recent months, things have started to turn around. He went from 40 staffers to 70 and is still hiring. Other cafés have begun to inquire whether they can contract with Gaylord, too.
Using Gaylord as a commissary “eliminated prep hours at all locations,” Rodriguez said. “It improved consistency and cut costs. And with the costs we’ve cut, we’re able to pay a higher wage.”
Born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in Wisconsin, Rodriguez had a Cuban dad and went to a “largely white” school, where he experienced “the brunt of the bad side of being a Rodriguez.” His childhood was, as he said, Ortega-style tacos (ground beef, cheddar, iceberg lettuce).
“I don’t necessarily have to go to Mexico City or Los Angeles to source recipes, because I made these up,” he said. “These are mine, and I feel like I’ve earned it, in a way.”
When it came time to develop Taco Local’s recipes, Rodriguez was careful not to overcomplicate. It is possible, as we recently did, to come with a medium-sized group, order every taco on the menu and leave with enough room for ice cream down the street.
At lunch and dinner, “street” tacos are served three to a plate on sturdy corn tortillas, each with a few leaves of romaine, pickled red onions and a scoop of mayo-dressed corn. A few, like barbecue brisket with coleslaw, were pretty good. (Later, at a quick lunch, that same brisket made a passable torta too, saucy and sweet.)
Taco Local’s red pozole was decent, warmly spiced broth around soft hominy and shredded pork. And a breakfast burrito — breakfast is served daily from 8 a.m. until noon — was a fat, happy, efficiently portable start to the day, improved by house-smoked bacon.
Other things feel a bit more mass produced. A “Caesar” salad, more shredded romaine under a pile of tomatoes, bore no resemblance to the name. And for now, tacos aren’t a reliable draw. Meatier ones fared somewhat better, like sticky mango-braised pork and a fairly chewy seared steak.
"Tequila lime" chicken tacos were dry and nearly tasteless. Other tacos were bland, repetitive and splotched with watery pico de gallo or mild salsa verde. But at least they were small?
“We’re busy everywhere”
Three months in, Taco Local is working out some kinks. But eventually, Rodriguez hopes this efficiency and consistency (hallmarks of the fast food industry) could be applied to other concepts.
“We want to open multiple restaurants using the model, but they’re not going to be all taco joints,” Rodriguez said. “You can translate it to different cuisines. We could do this model for a Korean restaurant, or a Greek restaurant.”
A local spot for Melted’s burgers and grilled cheeses could be next — Rodriguez is eyeing the growing East Washington Avenue corridor for a project. Next spring, he wants to put a speakeasy-style bar in the apartments above Taco Local, which would require city approval.
He dreams of a “Pan-Am style lounge” in Maple Bluff that evokes “the heyday of air travel, when you could order a rib-eye in a suit.” He’s also begun to invest in other concepts, like Brian Hamilton’s new Kettle Black Kitchen on Monroe Street.
“I knew it was a risk, we might not make it, but I knew if we did there’d be half as many restaurants and twice as many people wanting to go out to eat," Rodriguez said. “I pushed really, really hard to get through the pandemic, and it’s paying dividends. … We’re busy everywhere.”
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