This is One Year In, a feature wherein Eater sits down for a chat with restaurateurs and chefs celebrating their one year anniversary.
The men behind Tacolicious: Chef Telmo Faria (left) and co-owner Joe Hargrave.
In December of 2009, Joe Hargrave put his Marina Spanish restaurant Laiola to rest and started 2010 off with a gutted shell of an eatery and a plan. He would put a brick-and-mortar version of his growing Ferry Plaza taco stall, Tacolicious into the space and promote former Laiola sous chef Telmo Faria to lead the kitchen. A brand that had always been something of a lark for Hargrave would become serious business. Now a little over a year in, we take a moment to sit down with Hargrave and Faria to look back on a whirlwind of busy nights, an uncountable number of margaritas and a simple taco-centric concept that won't be going anywhere but up.
I know a lot of folks were sad when Tacolicious' predecessor Laiola closed a little over a year ago. What tipped the scales and made you decide to end it?
Joe Hargrave: Thank you, it was sad. It was a ton of work and something I'd been planning for years and years. From the day we opened there were a lot of accolades and a lot of really good press, but even with people raving about the food, we never took hold. So we opened July 17, 2007 and we lost money for almost a year straight. We didn't have the positive cash flow we needed and then the economy tanked and things got worse and worse and it wasn't going to happen. It just became not fun anymore.
So why Tacolicous?
Joe: Well Tacolicious was carrying Laiola. And Tacolicious, honestly it's a silly name, but we never planned on it it being a restaurant. And we had so much fun doing it. And it came very very truly from a passionate place. It was always in the works. The mint salsa, the chipolte salsa the roasted tomatillo and avocado salsa, those were invented like ten years ago. And then when Telmo, who was a sous chef at Laiola, and I started talking I didn't even know he worked at Tropisueno. I didn't know he spoke fluent Spanish. He had this very traditional, classic Mexican style and mine was much more modern and when the two of us got together, we never butted heads. We never had anything but collaboration, and that's really fun.
Telmo Faria: I think Joe and I see restaurants the same way.
Joe: Sidebar, a lot of people give us shit for opening a taqueria. We're white guys, we have a Mexican restaurant on Chestnut. Well you're not the first ones to do it. Were you worried at all about the very similar concept, Mamacita, down the street? It never even came into my thought process. I like those guys and I think they're awesome. But no I never even thought about it. Really? Never crossed my mind. Put it this way. Delarosa opened a few months before we did. I never once in my mind thought, A16 is gonna be pissed. And they're serving pizza and pasta. So they're essentially doing the same thing. I think the population we have in Cow Hollow/Marina, I think having another Mexican restaurant is sustainable. All of California identifies with Mexican food. I used to spend three months a year there as a kid. I also think that's why people's hackles get raised so easily. Where did you experience most of the naysaying? Was it on the web? Yes, I think everyone has a strong opinion about Mexican. Everyone has an idea, like "I'm from San Diego so I know fish tacos," or "I'm from LA and I know my Mexican food." And I think "Really, like San Diego is the home of fish tacos?"
So do you feel like you're still getting shit now, a year later, for being white guys operating a taqueria in the Marina? I don't think it's ever gonna die down. But now, in a way it's kind of fun. We're doing everything we can to respect the culture and the people and we appreciate the connection we have. After a while you're like, you know what? It doesn't matter. You can't expect everyone to be your cheerleader.
Telmo: So that's why when Joe was thinking we would convert Laiola to Tacolicious, he met with me. He told me his idea. I had a couple reservations at first due to the nature of the beast. Once we talked about the menu, I realized Joe was as passionate about the culture, the food, the ingredients and people as I am. We're just like two guys that really had the same kind of thoughts about this. At the same time we were like, let's keep it short and sweet. Lets focus on things we can change out seasonally.
Joe: We have a walk-in that's pretty soundproof, and if we disagree we go in the walk-in and have words. But no one's getting fired. And there's a third, Mikey our GM should be sitting here too. We talk about and think about everything together. We're a team.
So when did you see the shift with Tacolicous? When did you know it would succeed?
Joe: Remember the first night? We rocked out. Why was it so busy? Did you promote the hell out of it? No. We had no clue. Opening night by like 10:30 it hadn't slowed down. People kept coming and coming and to this day, it's been a year and we've had Easter, Christmas Eve as the only slow nights we've had.
Why do you think Tacolicious just flew from the beginning? Tell you what. I don't know. I think restaurants are a lot like babies. You can smoke; you can exercise; you can eat; you can not eat. The kid's gonna come out the way the kid's gonna come out. And the reaction the world's gonna have to the kid and vice versa, it's just what it is. If I would've told Laiola's story and Tacolicious' story to an investor, Tacolicious wansn't getting any money. As a restaurateur and a chef, how unexciting can you be? We really pushed the envelope with Laiola. And you know what the customers are doing? They're falling asleep. It's good to remind yourself you're here for the customer, not yourself.
Telmo: I remember two weeks before we opened, every day, Joe would ask me, "Is this gonna work?" And I said, "Joe, this is going to work." We watched Tacolicious grow and grow and grow. To the point where before we had brick and mortar, we were already doing birthday parties. We had a wedding on the books. We were doing catering. We knew the demand was there. There was already a buzz about the brand. Like Joe said, it's California comfort food. Like shrimp and grits in the south and lobster rolls in the East Coast. Joe and I were also on a mission for a very special door. And when we found it, it was a sign.
I need to take a look. Where'd you find the door?
Joe: Urban Ore in Berkeley
Telmo: We had to dig and dig and dig and all the sudden we were walking out and we saw it. I was like, "Joe, is that the door?" And he looks at me and he's like "That's the door." His best friend was doing construction and he said it was the perfect size. It was meant to be.
What's the history of the door?
Joe: We don't know, but we needed a new entrance way to mark the new era. We needed to make as many changes as we could for $10,000 [laughing]. And then we went on to make this a place that we would want to hang out at every day and drink a margarita. And we wanted to make sure we were having fun the whole time. We make fun of ourselves.
Telmo: It's kinda like Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby." Like one of those songs no one takes seriously, but everyone likes. One of our investors, Mike reminded us. Guys, you're too serious with this, enjoy it.
Clearly you nailed it for the neighborhood. Did you have any strategy with the critics?
Joe: You know what. I know what Michael Bauer looks like. He decided not to review the restaurant, for whatever reason. Patricia Unterman.
Telmo: I actually just met her the other day.
Joe: I actually met her before. But I don 't know when she was here. And that's good. She loved it. She did, I mean she really hurt my feelings though. She trashed our margarita. She said the triple sec was inferior. But it was a good thing. Because we had the taste off. I got Liza from A16, Rebeca Chapa, Eric from Tres Agaves, Sara, myself. We did a blind tasting and all these sommeliers chose ours in a blind tasting. What triple sec do you use? Bols. And it's the one we still have.
Telmo: Our classic margarita is like two parts tequila, one part triple sec, juice of one lime. Shake.
So what didn't work on the menu here?
Joe: I love steak ranchera. We had this beautiful steak, served with flour tortillas, rice and beans. It's like a Mexican staple and I had it in Mexico City and it was so good, I was like "we're gonna put that on the menu." And so we had all these larger plates like that. And no one ordered them.
Telmo: We couldn't give it away. People wanted tacos. So we focused on the taco of the week. The small plates were going really well so we focused on changing those out several times a year.
Joe: The albondigas, the cevice, the tortilla soup, the churros, we had all those things at first but we took them off. Those are all things that we had to scrap and slowly add back to create them with more finesse.
What inspires you guys? What other Mexican places do you go to?
Joe: La Torta Gorda for sure. Armando, the owner, is our homeboy.
Telmo: Him and his wife are awesome.
Joe: San Jalisco. It used to be Los Jarritos. Their chorizo and tortillas are made in house. So their chorizo con huevos. Telmo and I have our breakfast meetings there.
Telmo: Mexico DF is my favorite food-wise of the other sit-down places. I think Nopalito has some good things. The chef there Gonzalo is from Veracruz and I think his fish and seafood dishes are so spot on.
Where else do you guys like to go? Non-Mexican.
Telmo: Pizzeria Delfina. Taiwan, Taiwan on Clement Street.
Joe: You know I enjoyed Mums. You know, shabu shabu? The people are really sweet there. I don't know, I'm so critical with restaurants.
Well lets talk about your goals for the business in the coming year.
Joe: Tacolicious if I had my druthers, we're going to keep the quality up and keep the relationship with the farmers, but we don't need to put all the farmers on the menu because it's just cliche.
Telmo: It's so 1995, man.
Joe: We're opening one here and one in the Mission and we want to be great here for the next 20 years. This is what we do. We will never step away from this restaurant. And Mike will never step away.
OK let's talk about the Tacolicious coming to the Mission. Any fun updates?
Joe: Dude, Valencia? The ball's rolling. So the bar, Mosto, will actually be connected to Tacolicious. On the right at Tacolicious, there's going to be a long bar that goes the whole length of the room and then a long line of tables will line the other side and that will look out on the enclosed patio outside. We've got 36 seats and heat lamps that are going to be outside. There's going to be a large communal table. Then when you walk in the door at Mosto, we'll have a spit for tacos al pastor. It's something that Telmo and I fell in love with in the Condesa district of Mexico City. So we're going to do it in the bar. We'll sell al pastor tacos for $1.50 or three for four dollars. So you'll be able to get a really beautiful taco, roasted right in front of you.
Telmo: We'll have a chalkboard menu, we'll always have a seafood option, a vegetarian and then one really seasonal fish dish, like a simple piece of fish with fresh citrus that will go really well with some of the blanco tequilas.
Joe: The thing we love about Mexico is it's always super seasonal, so we want to center this tequila bar around five fresh juices. So there will be somebody whacking coconuts for coconut water. You'll see it. And then other seasonal juices.
Telmo: The Tacolicious over there is obviously going to be different but you'll still feel like you walk in and you're at Tacolicious. The space itself is big, but we didn't want it to feel vast. So we created small spaces that make it feel intimate depending where you're sitting.
Joe: No matter how busy we are, we have two servers, two bartenders and a hostess, that's not gonna change. It stays intimate. Our waiters don't have their hands behind their backs and they don't say, "yes, sir," "no sir;" but the service is still good and the care is still there.