It’s been a hell of a year for El Garage. When the Montano family first started selling cheesy, red-tinted birria tacos — or quesabirria — out of their own driveway in Richmond in February of 2019, the business quickly emerged as one of the most popular taco pop-ups in the Bay Area. It garnered tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, routinely drew lines that wrapped around the block, and was named it 2019’s Pop-up of the Year — all while operating as an informal, unlicensed business.
It was exciting news, then, when El Garage drew up plans to open its first restaurant storefront in Richmond — plans that, like those of so many other restaurants, were waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic. The pop-up’s devotees have gone several months without their quesabirria fix, but co-owner Viviana Montano tells Eater SF that this time it’s official: The restaurant — located at 1428 Macdonald Avenue in Richmond, a few blocks away from the Richmond BART station — has passed its health inspection and received its business permit.
This Saturday, July 11, it’ll make its debut as a fully above-board business, ready to sling all of the cheesy, dripping-wet birria tacos its loyal customers’ hearts desire — for takeout only to start.
In the Bay Area taco ecosystem, El Garage is something of a pioneer. The pop-up was one of the first early adopters to introduce Tijuana-inspired beef birria tacos — slow-cooked beef ladled over tortillas that are dipped in red chile sauce, then griddled to a crisp — to the Bay Area. The pop-up quickly achieved viral levels of popularity among Mexican food enthusiasts — well before the term “quesabirria” entered the lexicon of the Bay Area’s broader food community. Thanks in part to El Garage’s success, you can easily find quesabirria at taquerias and taco trucks all over the Bay, even during the pandemic.
According to Montano, one of the restaurant’s chief concerns, during this time of social distancing, will be how to manage the crowds. After all, takeout-only or not, one of the defining characteristics of the El Garage experience has always been the length of its wait times, which stretched as long as two hours during the peak of the pop-up’s popularity.
To avoid a dangerous public health situation — especially with COVID-19 cases now spiking in Contra Costa County — Montano says the restaurant won’t offer any walk-up service right now. Instead, customers will have to pre-order online (the website won’t go live until around noon on Friday, July 10) and sign up for a specific time slot to pick up their orders a table set up in front of the restaurant. The goal, Montano says, is for no more than six to eight people to show up at any given time.
To start out, the restaurant will serve a limited menu of its signature offerings: quesabirria ($4), birria tacos without cheese ($3), and consomé ($4), plus a couple of agua frescas. “We don’t want to do a grand opening just yet,” Viviana Montano says. Eventually, Montano says, there will be a broader menu of weekly specials and other Mexican street foods — al pastor pizza has been floated as a possibility — courtesy of chefs Jorge Veranza, a former La Calenda chef de partie (and Montano’s boyfriend), and Susana Montano, the family matriarch.
But for the next six weeks or so, they’ll stick with the stripped-down menu focused on the business’s claim to fame. For longtime El Garage fans, there won’t be many complaints about that.
El Garage’s initial hours will be Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Order online at ElGarage.online.