At noon on a recent Thursday, Pubbelly chef-partner Jose Mendin called out orders to his line cooks in the kitchen of Taco Belly in South Beach.
“Tacos in! Chorizo y carne asada! Quesadillas de elote!”
The kitchen was humming, and the dining room was full of customers with rolled-up sleeves, hunched over plates of tacos dripping with meat juices and hot sauce.
Taco Belly is a lunch-only, weekday-only taqueria inside the Pubbelly Group’s PB Steak in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood. When they opened it in July, Mendin and partners planned to end the pop-up’s run by September, but its success has led them to keep it going indefinitely while they scout locations for a permanent taco shop.
“We knew we had a really strong menu, but we had no idea people would be this into it,” Mendin said during a break in lunch service. Then, surveying his dining room with a smile: “We should have known – everyone loves tacos.”
The Pubbelly guys weren’t the only ones with the bright idea to start slinging tacos this summer. Two other taquerias – Huahua’s on Lincoln Road and TeQuiztlan on Bay Road – opened within days — and steps — of Taco Belly.
“Tacos are like tapas: You have a few bites of this, then a few bites of that,” said TeQuiztlan owner Jose Ortiz, a Mexico City native who closed his long-running El Rancho Grande off Lincoln Road in 2011 (two other Miami-Dade locations remain) and opened his new spot with a focus on tacos and tequilas.
“You can put anything you want into a tortilla, and it becomes a taco,” Ortiz said. “We like to give people lots of options of well-cooked meats and let them put whatever they want on top. And we serve three to an order, so it’s more than just tapas – it’s a meal.”
TeQuiztlan’s tacos are straightforward, starting with soft corn tortillas hand-pressed on-premise by Ortiz’s sister, Ely Ortiz. (“All of the recipes come from our family,” Jose Ortiz said.)
The kitchen fills them with hunks of marinated pork and pineapple for tacos al pastor, with grilled chicken or tender steak, or even gringo-style with ground beef and shredded cheese in a hard shell. An order of three costs $11 and comes with garnishes like fresh lime, diced onions and a smoky chipotle salsa.
Those traditional tacos are in contrast to Taco Belly’s “cheffy” options, which come two per order ($7-$8) and include crave-worthy embellishments like Manchego foam (on carne asada) and house-made kimchi (on Korean-style bulgogi beef).
At Huahua’s, executive chef Todd Erickson pushes the taco envelope even further, deep-frying avocado for a veggie taco and loading a flour “breakfast” tortilla with eggs, green pork chili, hash browns and melted cheese.
Erickson gives Taco Bell and its white-hot Doritos Locos Tacos a run for the border with Huahua’s fried-chicken taco, a munchies-eater’s dream of crunchy chicken strips, jalapeño-cornbread croutons and ranch dressing. Smartly, Huahua’s serves its $3.29 tacos until 5 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Tacos are supposed to be fun, so we definitely wanted to express that with our menu,” said Erickson, who also is executive chef at the neighboring Haven. “We’re trying to give people a fast, low-cost, delicious experience with the same quality they expect from Haven. Burgers sort of had their day in the sun as the inexpensive gourmet food of the moment, and now it’s tacos’ time.”
Despite the recent crush of taquerias in this corner of South Beach, tacos are certainly nothing new in South Florida.
“Tacos have swept the country,” a taco-cookbook author proclaimed in a 1991 article that appeared in the Miami Herald.
The cookbook, The Well-Filled Tortilla, suggested canned fruit and jarred spaghetti sauce as tasty taco toppings. Perhaps we’ve learned something since the last taco renaissance.
“I think the secret is just going back to basics, keeping everything as fresh and simple as possible,” said Eating House chef-owner Giorgio Rapicavoli.
His Coral Gables restaurant began serving lunch this month, and its frequently changing menu has at least one staple: Baja-style tacos with grilled Gulf shrimp, cabbage slaw, roasted-lime crema and “Sra. Lip’s” salsa (three for $12). That last ingredient is a nod to sous chef Adriana “Lip” Egozcue, who earned the nickname “by talking back a lot,” Rapicavoli said.
“Lip is crazy over tacos – there is nothing she loves more in the world. We knew we were going to have a taco on the menu, and they’re her baby. She’s making the tortillas fresh every day, making the salsas, using whatever fish is best that morning. It’s gotten to the point where I have no input whatsoever on the tacos. It’s just like, ‘Do your thing. You’re knocking it out of the park.’”
Like Eating House, several South Florida restaurants offer at least one type of taco, regardless of the cuisine they serve.
BLT Steak at the Betsy hotel in South Beach has ceviche tacos on its Miami Spice menus, a departure from its steakhouse and raw-bar fare. Venerable Key Biscayne fish house The Rusty Pelican gets into the game with ahi tuna tacos, topped with a dollop of guacamole and a dusting of fennel pollen.
Still others are finding success in the taco-only route.
Since March, John O’Connell has co-opted Josh’s Deli in Surfside, turning it into John’s Tacos on Wednesday through Monday nights. John’s Tacos has earned a pack of loyal fans with its from-scratch tacos (one for $4, three for $11) and fried-to-order chips, served with a selection of aguas frescas or Mexican Coca-Cola.
Mercadito at Midtown Miami, which Pubbelly’s Mendin helped open in 2010 when he was corporate chef of the Chicago-based chain, blends traditional southern Mexican flavors with ones that are very Miami. Take, for example, its lemon-poached lobster taco with jalapeño butter, or the fact that you can substitute Bibb lettuce as your taco vessel. Mercadito’s tacos are $15.50 for an order of four at dinner, or you can get one for $3.50 or three for $9 from the restaurant’s taqueria menu.
As he eyed an order of pork carnitas sizzling on a flattop grill at TeQuiztlan, Jose Ortiz laughed at the notion that tacos are a trend.
“I’ve been eating tacos my entire life,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: I own a taco restaurant; I’m happy that they’re popular. But tacos have been around longer than us. And I have a feeling people will be enjoying them for a long, long time.”
Tacos de Carnitas Michoacanas at Taco Belly. Photo: Gregory Castillo