Taco Rouge landed in Polk Gulch on August 22, revamping the former Rouge and Nick’s Crispy Tacos space into a casual spot for fresh tacos by day and tequila with live and DJ’d music at night. The work of chef Daniel Tellez, former executive chef at Sausalito’s Copita and a winner of Bocuse d’Or Mexico, the restaurant’s menu hews to Tellez’s insistence on seasonal ingredients and powerful Mexican flavors.
Street tacos and tostadas are at the heart of a menu that sources ingredients from California and ideas from Tellez’s Mexican upbringing. Tellez, who has Lebanese roots and grew up in Mexico City, frequently made the two-hour drive to Puebla, in part to try the city’s most famous foods — mole poblano, chiles en nogada, tacos al pastor, and tacos árabes — in the city where they originated. A plate of “Arabic tacos,” or tacos árabes, slow-cooked pork topped with yogurt dressing, captured the six-year-old Tellez’s attention. “It was the bread,” Tellez says. “It was not a tortilla. It was different from what my family always ate.”
The dish’s history changes depending on who you ask, but most agree that tacos árabes arrived in Mexico with Levantine expats fleeing the collapse and subsequent breakup of the Ottoman Empire, a swath of land reaching from northern Africa across southern Europe to the Levant and the lands around the Black Sea, in the years between World War I and World War II. It is sometimes called the original al pastor taco, its origins and preparation similarly traced to Levantine immigrants of the same era.
The bread that Tellez adored as a child is a signature of the dish. Made from wheat flour, not corn flour or masa, the round, flat disc is known as pan árabe or Arabic bread. For Taco Rouge’s taco árabe, Tellez makes pan árabe in-house, allowing a dough of wheat flour, lard, and water enough rest to achieve the density he prefers. Pressed and cooked on a warm — not hot — pan, the unleavened dough does not develop a pocket, like as a pita, but rather something closer to Italian piadina or Indian roti. Or, sticking with the Ottomans, Armenian lavash.
Atop the bread is not roasted lamb, or shawarma, as might be found in the Levant, but pork, a more accessible, affordable, and culturally familiar meat in Mexico. Tellez marinates his pork with cumin, coriander, Mexican oregano, thyme, lime juice, and “lots and lots of onions,” before pan-frying to release the meat’s sweetness. His yogurt sauce – or labneh – is quite loose, as close as he can get to the version Tellez tried in Puebla as a child, topped with vinegared cucumbers for a fresh flavor.
In Tellez’s opinion, many Mexicans choose their taquerias for the salsa, so he prepares a salsa unique to this taco from a recipe that’s been around for 100 years. Chipotles — smoked, dried jalapenos — are rehydrated and pan-fried. He then adds plentiful cumin and oregano, and a bit of vinegar. The result is thick and creamy, almost like a paste or a nut butter. “It’s very traditional with taco árabe,” says Tellez, who notes the salsa’s balance of smoke and acid works beautifully with the labneh while allowing the flavor of the pork to shine through.
It’s a dish that invites discussion with the staff. “A lot of people ask about it, they are not familiar with it,” Tellez says. “But once they understand a bit of the story, they feel they are eating while learning something.” One bite and you will understand a bit of Mexican history, too.
Taco Rouge (1500 Broadway, San Francisco) is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.