In Broward County, 2011 has been the year of the taco. This humble food began its star turn in January, when Mexican chain Dos Caminos opened in the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel. Trendy Rocco's Tacos followed with a February opening on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. In the wake of these heavy hitters came a slew of more accessible taco joints. Not quite so fancy as to have actual plates and dishes yet not as intimidating as a true Mexican roach coach might be, these new restaurants fill the middle range of the taco spectrum, offering gourmet flavors but without the fancy real estate. Here's to counter service, paper baskets, and guacamole that doesn't cost $24 a bowl!
At El Jefe Luchador in Deerfield Beach, a tortilla gapes open in a wax-papered basket to reveal a $3.50 carnitas taco blanketed with tomato salsa and red onion, sprinkled liberally with Cotija cheese. Doused with lime, it's a combination of savory meat; cream; fat, bright, fresh tomatoes; the sharp bite of onion; and a mild chili heat.
Quite a bit goes into the preparation. First, pork butt and shoulder are brined for six hours in a sugar, salt, garlic, citrus, and water solution. This is made into a confit as it slow-cooks in leaf lard. Finally pork is crisped on the griddle in an orange glaze, resulting in meat that glistens with fat and crisps at the corners. It's a glorious taco, though it's not the bestseller, seeded at number four. The crowd-pleasing rib-eye asada ranks first, followed by chicken, then brisket barbacoa. All clock in at $3.50 apiece.
Mike Saperstein, co-owner of El Jefe Luchador, is a former fine-dining chef who has worked at Bistro 17 in Fort Lauderdale's Renaissance Hotel, Gotham City Steak in Delray Beach, and Cafe Maxx in Pompano Beach. With El Jefe, his aim was to offer "hard-core Mexican street food" in a fun environment. Tables and chairs wear primary colors. Flamboyant lucha libre wrestling masks are mounted on one wall. A gaudy crystal chandelier hangs from tin ceilings. ZZ Top blares through the speakers. Plates have names like "Vampiro" and "Dos Locos Gringos."
Saperstein says that most first-time customers stick to familiar foods. "Once they realize how good the rib-eye and chicken tacos are," says Saperstein, "they're more willing to branch out on their second visit." They might move on to the chorizo or hongos y name (grilled mushrooms and fried yam), washed down with some horchata: the sweet drink made with rice, vanilla, and cinnamon.
El Jefe Luchador is the second restaurant from Saperstein and Evan David; their first is Charm City Burgers, which follows a similar formula of lowbrow, funky setting plus a gourmet take on an everyday food. Saperstein says they were inspired by Tacos al Carbon, an authentic 24-hour taco shop in Lake Worth. "We would visit the place," says Saperstein, "as well as others in the back of Mexican markets in Homestead and around the area. And we would say to each other, 'We need more of these. We need to open something like this.' "
The owners hint that their instincts have proven profitable so far. Says David: "Tacos aren't as finicky as hamburgers, where you have to take into account whether they're cooked rare or medium and which toppings people want. A regular burger features seven toppings at Charm City. That's a lot of prep work, a lot of staff."
The partners are planning to open a midrange, chef-driven restaurant early next year and also have more-ambitious plans for El Jefe Luchador: multiple locations. "You can duplicate these tacos for 50 people or 1,000," said David, who says they're currently feeding 200 people a day, from hipster kids to grandpas.
Joseph Parsons, who opened Jo-Jo's Tacos this past July in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, has a pedigree not unlike Saperstein's. An acolyte of famous Chicago chef Charlie Trotter and a former executive chef for Norman Van Aken at Norman's, Parsons also logged stints with Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe and looped in Sweden and Taos with Michelin-starred chefs. Yet here he is in a 20-seat restaurant in a space that looks like a revamped Waffle House, with no more than two additional chefs beside him on the line. Guests order at a cash register and get their own silverware, though there are some attentive details: The bar is marble, there's a wine list, and the soundtrack is Primal Scream and Massive Attack. Parson intends to offer cooking classes, tequila tastings, and picnic baskets in the near future.
"Only could a fine-dining chef like Jo-Jo charge five bucks a taco," says a man waiting in line for a seat as he peruses the menu. The place is packed, especially on weekends, with a mix of beachgoers and foodies following Jo-Jo. Diners are gobbling up the $5.50 breaded octopus tacos and crispy flash-fried rock shrimp, served with celery, blue cheese, Buffalo sauce, and crema. Parsons diverges from authentic Mexican street food with dishes like "'Shrooms and Asp" (asparagus) for $5, "Seaside Sirloin" for $4.50, "Sarge's Piglet" for $4.50, "WB's BLT" for $4.50, and "Peachy Pollo" for $4.50.
The condiments are also standouts. An assortment of sauces is offered at $1 extra apiece, but the one that draws in the hotheads — that's not listed on the menu; you have to ask for it — is made from Bhut Jolokia, a type of chili that ranks among the hottest on the Scoville scale.
"Smell that perfume," says Parsons from behind the line, taking a whiff of dried chilies in a ziplock bag. A couple of dozen "ghost chilies," as they're called, each about the size of a thumb, offer a seductive earthiness — yet hit more than a million on the Scoville scale. Compare that to Tabasco sauce at 2,500 Scoville units and you get the idea: It's best to use restraint when dressing a taco with this stuff.
At Taco Beach Shack, the location is important — perhaps more than the food. Conceived by real estate guru Alan Lieberman of South Beach Restaurant Group and partner/chef Stuart Snowhite, a former chef to a slew of national athletes, the open-air hangout, located steps from the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, features cement floors, Ping-Pong tables, and outdoor couches. Kids might be running underfoot; a dude might be singing karaoke to "Sister Christian." A huge sign advertises rooms available at a nearby hostel so as to avoid drunk driving. (The hostel is owned by the restaurateurs.)
The menu is stacked with tacos, burritos, and quesadillas — mostly standard beef, chicken, and fish (available both grilled and Baja style), but brisket and Korean short rib are also offered for the more adventurous. Solid as the food is, patrons seem equally lured in by the $15 beer buckets and supersweet sangria.
Will tacos keep gaining momentum? Or will their popularity wane, as we've seen with comfort foods and sliders? Time will tell, but for now, there's proof: plenty of butts in the seats.