Marc Falsetto is a busy man these days. In January, his newest restaurant, Tacocraft Taqueria & Tequila Bar, opened its doors on the east end of Himmarshee Street. If all goes as planned, the restaurateur and cofounder of JEY Hospitality Group says he'll be reigning over Fort Lauderdale's historic downtown district soon enough.
Sure, it's a bold statement to make, but with the bravado of a man with several successful concepts under his belt, and a wall full of foodie awards to match, Falsetto is confident he can make it happen.
"My restaurants don't fail," says Falsetto. "I take cursed spaces, and I make them work. It's sort of become my thing. And that's how I'm rebranding Himmarshee."
On a recent weeknight the line is out the door at Falsetto's Rok:Brgr, there are more than 100 reservations on OpenTable for Public House, and the 1-month-old Tacocraft has a two-hour wait. That same weekend each establishment is open for brunch, and they're all packed to the brim.
It's a regular scene for the self-made restaurateur and onetime club promoter who, for the past five years, has been a man on a mission. Alongside partner Chuck Hazlett, a longtime financial consultant specializing in restaurant and hospitality acquisitions and expansion strategies, the duo has been working to create concepts intended to make the city's oldest section of the commercial downtown -- hemmed on the south end by the New River and bound on the north by Broward Boulevard -- a dining destination.
It began in late 2010 with Rok:Brgr, which opened to instant success in what Falsetto claims was the highest-grossing restaurant per square foot in South Florida at the time. It seemed a ludicrous idea then, a gourmet gastropub serving $15 burgers and $10 beers in the middle of a recession.
"I had this crazy idea that I was going to open up a high-end burger bar serving microbrews," says Falsetto. "Everyone told me it was a bad idea. Chuck was the only one that believed in me, and he partnered with me to bring it to Fort Lauderdale. Today, there isn't a restaurant in the city that hasn't copied at least one of my menu items or used one of my promotions."
That same year they founded JEY Hospitality Group -- short for "Just Enjoy Yourself" -- a multilevel restaurant and promotion company with one goal: to rebuild Himmarshee Village. In five years, JEY has grown quickly from just one Rok:Brgr location to now six restaurants spanning two counties and more than 300 employees.
Tacocraft, the latest concept to hit SW Second Street, is Falsetto's remake of the district's longtime T-Mex Cantina, which closed its doors in December. With Tacocraft, conveniently located next door to Rok:Brgr, Falsetto says the idea is to breathe new life into the stale Tex-Mex approach and deliver another craft concept to the downtown strip.
Already, Tacocraft has become a colorful and thriving addition to the area. The tiny, 1,200-square-foot space has been revamped with a custom mural by Florida graffiti artist Ruben Ubiera, and given a new menu of handcrafted tacos and cocktails to match.
As with each of his concepts -- including nearby Public House and Miami's Primo's Italian Kitchen and Bar -- Falsetto worked alongside JEY corporate chef Robbyns Martinez to create each menu item. The result has been nearly three years in the making.
On a recent Taco Tuesday the outdoor patio is packed with patrons, jammed together like sardines in a can, tables lining any available sidewalk space as people spill out from the restaurant's redesigned main dining room. It now features several booths along one wall, a small bar, and a pair of large communal-style tables where servers weave in and out of the fray with stacks of nachos and platters of tacos.
The tacos, built on house-made, hand-formed masa tortillas prepared daily and stuffed with prime meats and specialty sourced cheeses, cost $3 to $5 each. The chorizo taco has all the trappings of the stereotypical gastropub fare Falsetto's restaurants are known for, with a fried egg in all its runny-yolk glory smothering a pile of potato hash hedonism. The Mexican sausage shines alongside, tender and moist, a discernible hit of smoke paired with garlic aioli and delicate crumbles of cotija cheese.
Crispy shredded pork is the most popular, however, adobe- and chili-rubbed and smothered with the same imported cow's milk cotija, a thick house crema, vibrant salsa verde, and diced, charred pineapple. A prime carne asada version is hailed on the menu for its topnotch meat, a grade-A rib-eye steak grilled and sliced, paired with crema, queso fresco, roasted tomato salsa, and a delicate pico de gallo. The refried beans are overwhelming, though, a thick paste that swallows the delicate flavor of the other toppings.
There is more to this menu, however, than pricey craft tacos. "The Munchies" is a list of starters that includes filling and affordable fare. There are the usual Tex-Mex selections, like a chunky, onion- and cilantro-flecked guacamole served in a hefty stone bowl; or the salsa trio, a selection of three salsas: a vibrant verde, a smoky roasted tomato, and a velvety-smooth mango. But there are also atypical offerings like the Mexican street corn smothered in herbaceous cilantro paste, cotija cheese, and smoked paprika. And crispy, bite-sized empanadas in an authentic Colombian-style shell, packed with braised chicken, Oaxaca cheese, black beans, and roasted corn.
The loaded nachos are worth the order here, carefully layered so that each chip yields the right ratio of cheese, jalapeños, beans, guac, and salsa. The fresh-fried tortillas are the best part, thick slabs that are soft and chewy in the center and crisp along the edges, making them the perfect vehicle to convey all that nacho goodness from plate to mouth without cracking.
A quesadilla "bar" allows for customizable creations, available with short rib and crispy pork, or shrimp and braised chicken, which you can pair with charred poblano peppers, two types of cheese, black beans, and caramelized onions.
You could say Tacocraft appears to be another easy win for Falsetto, who already has plans to take the concept -- along with Rok:Brgr -- nationwide. But for now, his main focus remains Himmarshee Village. Plans are in the works for a few more JEY concepts, he says, including a Neopolitan-style pizza and wine bar that will round out the area's dining options. Also, keep an eye out for a rooftop martini bar for patrons looking for a more upmarket mingling scene.
According to Falsetto, Himmarshee has all the key points of a destination location with the arts center, a concert venue that brings in national acts, and zoning for a 4 a.m. liquor license. The only thing missing is the foodie vibe which he, of course, plans to provide.
"I want this to be a place where you come for dinner, have a few drinks, stay for a show, and come back after to dance the night away until 4 a.m.," says Falsetto. "Not many places in many cities have a place where you do all that in one block. Give me 12 to 24 months and you'll be doing it here."
Tacocraft Taqueria & Tequila Bar is located at 204 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Call 954-463-2003; or visit tacocraft.com.
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.