One of the restaurants in the running for Fall’s Hottest Opening is a tiny little taco stand opening in the former locale of the Pontiac Cafe. Details on the opening have been held close to the chest by all parties involved, but co-owner Terry Alexander (who’s joined in with Peter Garfield and the Blackbird team of Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan) spilled to Dish today on some details about the space, slated to open in late October. Alexander spilled mostly on the drinks aspect of things, but what we care about is the food. So we talked to the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Justin Large (a Blackbird, Avec, and The Publican vet whose appointment we broke back in July), to find out what’s in store.
What’s the schtick?
“It’s definitely not Tex-Mex,” Large insists. “If anything it’s traditional Mexican with some California influence there.” If you think bourbon and tacos are an odd combination, all you have to do is look at the restaurant’s historical inspiration. The bar’s aesthetic and underlying theme is, as Dish noted, the Bakersfield sound that emerged in California in the mid-1930s, where westward-going Okies and northward-headed Mexicans collided, producing a southeast-meets-southwest hybrid that gave rise to the whole California country sound. But don’t look for vintage instruments decorating the walls — or even a Merle Haggard soundtrack. “I think it’s more what they’re going for in terms of bringing in the whiskey list,” Large told us. “Sort of a 1930s working man dirty south.”
What is there to drink?
The space is being presented as more of a bar than a food destination — as Alexander tells Dish, “There will be about 50 obscure whiskeys [and] about 40 tequilas that a lot of people don’t know about,” plus a selection of taco-friendly beers from the Southwest. While the shots won’t be available from the “Dairy Queen-style” walk-up window, there just might be dulce de leche milkshakes or other family-friendly drinkables on hand as well.
What’ll there be to eat?
We’re here for the tacos. Large tells us the goal with the menu is to offer a few items that are executed really, really well: “We’re not reinventing the wheel. There won’t be foam on the tacos or anything like that. When you’re doing food that’s straightforward, there’s not a lot to hide behind. We cannot get the assembly line mentality, each dish is special.” To that end they’ll be making everything to order — right down to the tortillas.
Large is particularly jazzed about the L.A.-inspired al pastor taco, for which the kitchen has acquired a special trompo (the traditional spit on which the meat roasts): “What makes this spit great is that the actual spit itself is heated. It’s not like your traditional gyro cooker where it’s just flames on the outside charring this giant hunk of raw meat. The spit will be on display - we’re going to do it old-school style and carve the meat right off the spit onto the taco.” The other fancy kitchen object will be the wood-fired grill, on which Large is particularly psyched to make a wood-grilled fish taco. “I love a good fried fish taco, when done well it’s outstanding, but the wood-fired grill is like magic. The flavor and what it imparts to the fish is amazing.”
How much will it cost?
While it’s all subject to change, the goal here is to land a beer, a shot, and a taco for under ten bucks, Large told us, and to make that price point the tacos are going to have to run cheap. Of Chicago’s proliferation of taquerias, he says “all these guys are selling their tacos for $2, and we’re aiming for our tacos to come in at $1.85. I don’t think your average customer is going to want to spend $5 for a taco just because it’s coming from so-and-so’s farm who has great pigs.”
What’s it going to be called?
Still no name, swears everyone we’ve spoken to. And we believe them. Stay tuned.