Tacolicious isn’t your average taqueria. Co-owners Joe Hargrave and Sara Deseran, chef Telmo Faria and beverage director Mike Barrow were inspired by the world-class restaurants of Mexico City and the market-fresh, sustainable ingredients of their California home. They built a menu around both, added a glug of tequila for good measure, and made Tacolicious a neighborhood favorite. They took that same fresh, authentic approach when creating versatile salsas and braising sauces exclusively for Williams-Sonoma. The collection captures a range of Mexico’s flavors, from the smoky taste of chipotle peppers to the bright, tangy flavor of tomatillos.
Here, we ask the team all about building Tacolicious, what they love about Mexican food, and their favorite ways to use the new products. Read on, try the menu, and look for the Tacolicious cookbook this fall!
Clockwise from left: Joe Hargrave, Sara Deseran, Mike Barrow and Telmo Faria.
Tell us about your backgrounds and how you got into the food industry.
Since 1996, Joe has headed operations for restaurants such as Restaurant Lulu, Rose Pistola, Azie and Frisson. In 2007, he tossed all his suits to open his first restaurant, Laïola, a casual Spanish concept, which he closed in 2009 to make way for Tacolicious. Telmo came along at that point to join us ultimately as our executive chef, and Mike ultimately as our beverage director. Sara has participated by writing the cookbook and our blog over the years.
What’s the story behind Tacolicious? How did you start it?
It started with Joe’s childhood and his many extended trips to Mexico with his family. These trips, and many successive visits to Mexico as an adult, turned Joe into a guy who worked overseeing some of the city’s top restaurants, but at home, loved to cook Mexican food over everything else.
But the turning point was during the recession when Laiola was struggling like so many of the city’s good restaurants. Joe and Sara went to Mexico for some much needed R&R. Though they’d traveled in Mexico many times, they’d never been anywhere in Mexico that was so urban, modern, and full of life, not to mention void of all those silly Mexican restaurant clichés (heavy furniture, mariachi music, etc.).
It was love at first sight—specifically when it came to two Mexico City’s most popular restaurants—El Califa and Contramar, both of which provided great inspiration. Joe returned to the states with a crazy idea—to open a stand serving tacos at the Thursday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which he did the summer of 2009. With the popularity of the stand, the restaurants (Chestnut St., Valencia St., Palo Alto, and North Beach—in that order) followed. It’s kind of a recession Cinderella story. Joe looks great in a ballgown.
What was your vision for the restaurant?
A vibrant, fun, urban Mexican restaurant concept with a San Francisco point of view and good quality local ingredients. Oh, and a great cocktail menu and tequila list. Essentially a restaurant that Joe and Sara personally wanted to eat at. While the city had a great selection of taquerias, it was lacking sit-down Mexican restaurants serving food on another level.
Why tacos? What do you love about Mexican food?
The toasty smell of corn tortillas, the mix of cumin and chilies, the devotion to braises, the bazillion types of salsas, the perfect beans … this list could go on forever. Ultimately, tacos are just a casual, handheld accumulation of all this. Not to mention, true Mexican food is inherently a very healthy cuisine (and by true, we mean Mexican food from Mexico—not the cheese-laden combo platters you find in the States).
Describe your menu. How do you blend California and Mexican influences?
Though much of our menu is based on absolute tradition (carnitas, braised guajillo-beef tacos, agua frescas, margaritas, tequila and sangrita, flan), there’s plenty of it that speaks to our San Francisco, farm-forward soul (kale salad with quinoa and almonds, beets with queso fresco and grapefruit, watermelon and cilantro cocktails).
What are some of your go-to ingredients, and what do you love about them?
Cumin—earthy, toasty, delicious. Joe cooks everything with cumin. Avocados. I mean there’s nothing else like an avocado—creamy and buttery, avocados can be used in everything from salsas to dressings to guac to salads. Tortillas! Good corn tortillas are not to be taken for granted (so many are terrible). Bless them and bless La Palma, the local Mission District-based tortilleria that makes the millions of tortillas we serve year round.
What are the most popular dishes you serve? Your personal favorites?
The tuna tostada is one of our best sellers and one of our personal favorites. It’s an homage to the tuna tostada served at Contramar in Mexico City, not to mention proof that some of the most delicious dishes are created when you’re not a slave to a cuisine’s tradition.
We love all the products, but the salsas are everything to us. Salsas are to Mexico like cheeses are to France. Every region has their go-to salsa.
One thing that’s important to understand is that in Mexico, salsas are used as condiments, not for something to dip chips in. Though we definitely love dipping chips in salsa, the tradition is an American one. So it’s important to understand that the salsas that we’re selling through Williams-Sonoma are meant to be used as a condiment, not so much for dipping (though the avocado-tomatillo salsa would work for that if you wanted to).
We drizzle our salsas over our tacos of course, but also over scrambled eggs, over grilled meats and fish, and much more. As for the braising liquids, we love them all, but the guajillo-chile braising liquid is dear to our heart because it was one of the first recipes Joe came up with and started serving when we had our little taco stand at the farmers’ market. At the restaurant today, we braise boneless short ribs in it and shred the meat to make tacos. The result is the kind of taco that has juices running out of and down your wrist, which is a sign of greatness.
What about the menu created with Williams-Sonoma — what did you love about it?
I loved that they served the guajillo-chile short ribs in the big Le Creuset by just setting it out on the table and letting us serve ourselves. That’s really the best way to enjoy those braised meats rather than assembling them into premade tacos before serving your guests. Putting out all the pickled veggies too. Mmmmm.
San Francisco is one of the most amazing cities to live and work in because the food community here has such amazingly high standards. Our customers keep us on our toes and inspire us every day to do better. Not to mention the restaurant scene here is incredibly vibrant. We love being able to go out for Northern Chinese food at a little mom-and-pop one night and to get rustic Italian cooked up by a Michelin starred chef the next. In fact being able to be in close proximity to a lot of great Chinese dumpling spots lead us to our next restaurant concept. Chino is opening in the Mission District this May.