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Tacuba Throws a Party

New restaurant fills niche between fast casual and full service.

Last November, they opened the doors at 3648 King St. There were no announcements and no advertisements. Yet, it didn’t take long before people found their way to the latest gathering place at Bradlee Shopping Center. The name is Tacuba Cantina Mexicana and Molly Brown, publicity representative for the company, said that the crowd is steadily increasing.

“We have more community events and more and more people are hearing about us. There is a waiting line on most Fridays and Saturdays,” she said.

Located in the space formerly occupied by Desert Moon, the new owners have done some retrofitting, mostly creating an upscale bar area, which is stocked with tequilas and other liquors. No longer a fast food, carry-out restaurant, Tacuba is seeking to fill the niche between fast casual restaurants (Baja Fresh and Chipotle) and full service, high end restaurants (Border Grill and Frontera Grill) by serving high quality Mexican food in a relaxed atmosphere.

Last week, they invited members of the media to see what it was all about; they also held a reception for some of their regular customers and special guests. On hand were the three chefs who are driving this new venture: Mark Miller, Kelly Mullarney and Daniel Alvarez.

MILLER, WHO is celebrated as “the founder of modern Southwestern cuisine,” demonstrated how to prepare Mole Amarillo. While the ingredients he used for this spicy, sweet sauce differ from the recipe printed in his latest cookbook “Red Sage,” Miller said that the ingredients and quantities are ever changing.

“All cooking is about the balance of natural ingredients,” said Miller, as he explained how the freshness of the fruits can affect the balance, and quantities may have to be adjusted accordingly.

Amarillo means yellow in Spanish, and as such, Miller used pineapples, yellow tomatoes, yellow sweet pepper, orange sweet pepper, habanero chilies, Fresno chilies, vanilla, cinnamon and allspice to make the mole.

Miller explained that in Mexican villages, the same mole recipe can differ from household to household — they all have their own imprint. He also spoke about how most Mexican families have plants growing wild in their backyards, just waiting to be picked and used for cooking.

MILLER THEN EXPLAINED the origin of the name Tacuba which was part of Mexico City and had been the center of the Aztec capital. It was one of the largest cities at the time. As a result, the area was — and still is — known for its huge open market stalls, cafés and street merchants.

“It symbolizes the history of Mexico,” Miller said.

After Miller mixed the ingredients for the mole, he asked Alvarez to cook the sauce; he emphasized that they use water only, not broth, and never use butter.

“This is very healthy — no fats, no creams, just simple things,” Miller.

They then served guests the sauce with shrimp. Miller said that the mole Amarillo is best with seafood. He asked the guests to try to identify each of the flavors in their mouths as they tasted the sauce.

“There’s no one I know who’s more knowledgeable,” said Jim Robe, a friend, who has traveled with Miller.

“He has tremendous knowledge and has the ability to analyze the flavor profile of anything.” Robe said. “He can quickly educate himself on what cuisine an area has to offer. When we go to Mexico City, he has a visual map of the Mexico City market. It’s huge, but Mark knows where the best mole vendors are and where to find the best ingredients. He’s like a homing pigeon and knows which taco stand (out of 250) to pick.”

MILLER WILL BE INVOLVED peripherally with the operations of the new restaurant, as will Alvarez and Mullarney. Alvarez has worked with Miller for 18 years, and held every position in the kitchens of Miller’s other ventures — Coyote Café, Red Sage and Wildfire. He served as chef for the first two months and has been a key player in the creation of Tacuba’s menu. He also owns his own restaurant in Mexico, where he lives with his family six months of every year.

Mullarney has also spent the past couple of months working on recipes. He said that Tacuba is a test kitchen and will be used to launch a franchising operation in a couple of years. Mullarney said that he has known Miller for over 12 years, meeting him in Bangkok through a mutual friend. Mullarney has worked for many high profile restaurants, serving as director of food and beverage operations for House of Blues in Chicago; he recently returned from 2 1/2 years in Dublin, Ireland. He and Miller also spent two weeks traveling throughout Mexico, doing researching for a new cookbook.

Because Tacuba is being positioned as a franchise model, Mullarney said that his goals in preparing the menu are to make them foolproof. The key to a successful franchise is consistency, and he said that the menus need to be economically sound and cost effective for the owner.

WHILE TACUBA is 20 percent chef owned, the main operations are under the umbrella of Fransmart, a franchising development company. On hand for the reception at Tacuba was Fransmart’s owner, Dan Rowe. His company has provided franchising assistance to dozens of restaurants, recently entering into an agreement with Five Guys Burgers and Fries owners to help them grow their business.

Having worked with the Qdoba restaurants, Rowe decided that he wanted to come up with an upscale idea.

“I didn’t like the fast, casual food,” Rowe said. “I liked the idea of a dinner place. Tacuba will serve as a testing ground. We will build 3-4 more company stores and take a couple of years to get this under our belt. We want a chef-driven concept. I think there’s a niche for food that’s fast served and high end."

Managing the day-to day-operations is Todd Stallings. As the general manager of Tacuba, he will oversee the marketing and promotion of the restaurant; he will also direct the franchising operation when that is put into place.

Stallings said that he used to run Union Street Public House. He was the area manager for Hard Times Café in Indiana and has served as a consultant for Five Guys and The Birchmere.

“I’m happy with the feedback; it has been 100 percent positive,” Stallings said.