The taquería was born out of a desire to break true Mexican cooking out of its home country. And what dish better defines Mexican eating culture than the taco, that staple handheld snack that lines every street, beach and market in the Yucatán? With this philosophy in mind, Dario Wolos, the founder of Tacombi, employed a small army of Mexican food worshippers and drove his trusty food truck from Mexico all the way to New York's Lower East Side, where his dream crystalised in 2010.
It's hard to pass by the place without catching the scent of the festivities that bubble away inside. Anchored in a warehouse in Manhattan's Nolita neighbourhood, the original truck that once traversed the shores of Yucatán serving fresh tacos on the beach before it made its way to Manhattan, is still a centre point of the restaurant. "The van is the heartbeat of the room," General Manager Luis Berenbau tells us, "it was the beginning of it all!"
The open plan space is vibrantly festooned with strings of lights and multicoloured murals. It was easy to forget, as we watered ourselves with Margaritas, that we were in the midst of a polar vortex and not at some afternoon party on a Mexican beach. And that is the spirit of Tacombi, to transport its visitors onto the balmy shorelines of Mexico where it all began.
The van is the heartbeat of the room
Their taco flavours are big, bold and bright, whipped up by head chef Oscar Hernandez, who previously worked for Myriad restaurant group (of Nobu fame). There is corn and poblano pepper, chicken and dark mole sauce, and pork belly topped with radish and chicharrón, to name a few. Over 85,000 of the house favourite - a crispy fish taco lightly battered and served with chipotle mayonnaise and pickled cabbage - are sold a year. Outside of taco territory, the rest of the menu is pretty perfect, too. The ceviche is piled with fresh market fish drenched in lime and served on a soft flour tortilla, and the barbacoa is equally delicious, prepared using imported Mexican cola.
'The main focus is to bring in as many original products from Mexico as possible." Oscar says, 'That way we can deliver the truest flavours of the country in every dish."
Oscar and Luis share a palpable passion for what they are doing. Both are animated speakers leaving little room for breath, taking us up and down the musical notes of the Tacombi story. We pulled up a stool and more tacos than were necessary, listening as they sung praises of Mexico, 9AM pork belly and why the taco is taking over.
- Is selling food out of a truck a typical thing in Mexico?
- Actually no. We kind of pioneered that idea, there was nobody doing that in Mexico. We started it at the Playa Del Carmen. There were a lot of people flying over from New York and saying “There’s no good Mexican food at home, you’ve got to get over there!” So Dario did just that. At the time I was working as a chef. We started talking about the idea together and searching for a space, and we had to bring this amazing truck, so we drove it over all the way from Mexico.
- How often do you alter the menu?
- It’s kind of seasonal, with specials running every week. We have some items that people are in love with, so we just can’t take them out. We work with a lot of local farmers, butchers and fisherman that bring in the produce, and try to keep things as local as possible. To eat well and support local farmers, fisherman etc. is the most essential thing. As far as tacos go, you can just do so much with them. I think they’re going to take over pizzas here. There’s a taco revolution coming! The options of what you can create are just endless.
- What do you think it is about the food that everyone’s so in love with?
- Mexican food has a bad reputation. Most of the stuff you find in the States consists of cheese and sour cream; it’s just not Mexican. Before we were conquered by the Spanish, we didn’t use meat. The roots of many Mexican dishes are vegetarian. A lot of people don’t know that. They think Mexican food is unhealthy, but we’re trying to prove people wrong here, using a lot of fresh ingredients and creating wholesome dishes. We really strive to serve healthy food at Tacombi. For example, there is just one item on the menu with gluten in it, everything else is gluten-free. The crispy fish is fried in canola oil, which has low cholesterol and no trans fats…and we try to be as adventurous as possible. Recently we did a tongue dish, and we’ve just been discussing doing a pork belly taco with crispy skin. We keep things interesting but always true to the cuisine.
- Favourite spots to eat in Mexico?
- There’s this market in Merida, the capital of Yucatán, that you have to get to really early because it fills up so fast and the food gets snapped up in a couple of hours. You go at 9AM and you basically just eat pig. Some ladies behind a counter shred turkey, which is one of the most popular meats to use in that area, and tacos are made fresh all morning. So at 9 or 10 everyone goes and eats turkey, pork belly and tacos. It’s the most delicious breakfast on Earth!