There’s something about a taco party. It’s interactive, casual and inviting, the food always satisfies a craving — and margaritas are a must. At San Francisco’s Tacolicious, husband-and-wife owners Sara Deseran and Joe Hargrave capture the fun, easy-going vibe and lively flavors of the cuisine they fell in love with in Mexico. With the help of Chef Antelmo (Telmo) Faria and Beverage Director Mike Barrow, their restaurants have become the go-to for Mexican food with California flair — think tuna tostadas, vibrant salsas, refreshing cocktails and, of course, tacos filled with everything from fried fish and seasonal vegetables to beer-braised chicken and carnitas.
Now, with the publication of the Tacolicious cookbook, the team is sharing their best recipes from the restaurant: salsas, cocktails, tacos and snacks. Consider it inspiration for a festive fiesta (and don’t forget to check out our own line of Tacolicious food products!)
Here, Sara tells us all about the book, what she loves about Mexican food, and the dish that made her fall in love with Joe. Read our interview and try recipes from the book, then buy tickets to meet the Tacolicious team in Williams-Sonoma stores!
What do you love about the cuisine and culture of Mexico? What drew you to it in the first place?
Mexico is an inviting and friendly country, and the food is similar—it’s really accessible. You do a lot of eating with your hands. Really, the chiles are what makes Mexican food for me. They’re part of everything from salsas to braises. You end up with complex, humble dishes that are so comforting and crave-worthy at the same time. And I love corn tortillas!
Tell me about that fateful trip to Mexico City, when you and Joe got recommendations from Rick Bayless. Can you describe the food you had there?
It was one of those big food moments. Joe and I had traveled all over Mexico—Joe in particular—but we’d never been to Mexico City. Before that city, I had equated Mexican food to a Saveur kind of experience — a beautiful abuela with wrinkled skin handpatting tortillas — but this was hip, young, stylish and fashionable.
I think Joe and I would agree that Contramar is one our top 5 restaurants in the world. It’s like a Mexican brasserie, big and bustling, where the waiters wear crisp white aprons down to their ankles. We had amazing soft shell crab with warm tortillas and spicy habanero-pickled onions. The tuna tostada on our menu is called “Contramar-style” because it’s the restaurant’s signature. It’s by no means traditional—it has soy sauce and aioli—but it’s one of the most delicious combinations I’ve ever had.
The other one is El Califa, a sit-down taco restaurant. The salsas were big revelations; that’s what you’re there for. When we came back, we said to ourselves, There is nothing really like this in San Francisco. The city is full of taquerias, but not sit-down restaurants with urban qualities.
How did that experience shape your vision for Tacolicious?
We really wanted a place in San Francisco where we wanted to eat—a Mexican restaurant where you could sit down, that had cocktails, and that didn’t have all the trappings of most of the Mexican restaurants in the U.S. — heavy wooden chairs, mariachi bands. We call Tacolicious a California restaurant that serves Mexican food.
Why do you think Tacolicious was immediately so successful?
It’s a really honest restaurant that came from an honest place. Restaurants are best when they serve food that the owners really care about. It’s also a fair restaurant, with fair prices and friendly service. The food is straightforward, but we’re not trying to pull any bells and whistles. There’s a lot of thought that goes on behind it, but we’re not asking anyone to think too much about the food. We want to fulfill a craving.
How did you build the menu for your first brick-and-mortar? What was your inspiration?
I give all the credit to Joe. He’d always made a lot of Mexican braises and they worked perfectly for transporting and serving at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (which is where we started out). It was a practical thing. These kind of guisados, or braises, are also really practical for the home cook. You can make them ahead, freeze them, and keep them for days in the fridge. Braises are my default for tacos, with a good corn tortilla, crunchy pickled onions, a squeeze of lime juice and salsas.
Our salsas are also key. Mexico is about salsa. It’s not typically used for dipping chips; it’s used as a condiment for your food. Salsas are where you see different regions, and each cook has their own signature salsa. It’s what makes eating Mexican food exciting. We make a point at the restaurant to serve a few different salsas for this reason.
How do the cocktails fit into the menu? Can you describe the drinks?
All of our cocktails are bright and fresh—no heavy cocktails. You have to think about cocktails going with the food, so ours are light and juice-driven. This also parlays perfectly for home bartenders; you don’t have to have some obscure ingredient like crème de violette to make our cocktails. And ice! A drink served up, with really spicy, big-flavored food doesn’t pair as well– there’s something lost.
What made you want to write a Tacolicious book?
We have such vibrant restaurants and I think the food is fun and translates to the home cook. We didn’t change or alter anything for the cookbook, in fact; the recipes are written just as we do them at the restaurant. People see Mexican food as something that’s hard or unfamiliar, but it’s really a humble and very flexible cuisine.
Are the recipes in the book all dishes from the Tacolicious menu? How did you decide what to include?
Almost all of them are. We even introduced some new ones! One of the recipes in the book is a Cheater’s Panucho. Traditionally, panuchos are kind of a pain — you have to fry a tortilla, it puffs up, then you fill it with refried black beans and top it with marinated, braised turkey that’s pulled apart. So I made it it more like a tostada, super easy. And Telmo put it on the menu at the restaurant.
What’s something a lot of people mess up when it comes to Mexican food?
Most often it happens when you have to toast dried chiles. If you toast them too much, they’ll burn, and you don’t want that — it makes the entire dish taste bitter. There’s a fine moment when the aroma hits your nose and it’s just a tiny bit changed in color. Everything else is pretty forgiving.
Also, bad corn tortillas can ruin a taco. Look for good corn, fresh tortillas from tortillerias, or in regards to supermarkets, the we’ve found are at Trader Joe’s — they have the most flavor. The purist Mexican cook only toasts tortillas on a comal or a cast-iron skillet. You can also toast them directly over a gas flame on low. But at the restaurant, we throw them on the griddle with a little oil, which is so delicious. It takes them to a new level of corniness.
What are the most important ingredients to have on hand for Mexican cooking?
Good corn tortillas, cilantro, and at least a couple of different dried chiles. We’re always going to using onions and fresh chiles, too. And tomatoes — there’s lots of roasting tomatoes and chiles to make salsas. Cumin. Those are really at the heart of it.
Americans think cheese is huge part of Mexican cooking, but it’s really not. Yes, there are different cheeses used, but you won’t see platters covered in bubbling soups of cheese.
What’s your favorite recipe from the book, or one you make the most often? Why?
Honestly, the grilled corn with glove-box recado. That recado might be one reason I fell in love with Joe. He would put it on everything, and I became obsessed with it — it’s completely addictive. You can make it and give it to friends. It takes a little time, but it’s worth it.
What about a go-to party menu from the book — what would you serve?
Definitely a taquiza (taco party). There’s a menu in the book, and it’s a real tradition in Mexico. If I were going to have a party and really make people like me, I’d have guajillo chile-braised short ribs and tortillas, and queso — it’s the favorite of everyone that comes in the restaurant, including Michelin-starred chefs like Michael Tusk.
I’d do the recado corn, or the recado on another vegetable, like asparagus. I’d have a pitcher of cocktails so everyone could serve themselves. Maybe the Flor de Jamaica (dried hibiscus is very traditional in Mexico). I would buy Kent mangoes — the best mangoes you’ll ever have in the U.S. — and put them out with chile, lime and salt. Maybe cucumbers and watermelon, too. I love the whole salty-sweet part of Mexico.
And I’d greet everyone with sangrita and tequila. In Mexico, if you order tequila you get sangrita, which is a mix of tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice and onion or garlic, almost like a Bloody Mary without alcohol. Both the sangrita and tequila are served in shot glasses, and you sip them back and forth.
What’s next for the Tacolicious team?
We just opened a new restaurant, Chino, a dumpling-centric restaurant in the Mission District that’s what I’d call Chinese-y before purely Chinese. We finally got the soup dumplings perfect! They are quite a feat to make.
We’re also ramping up for the Tacolicious School Project now. From September to May, 15% of our Monday profits for a month go to a public school in the vicinity — each location is affiliated with a different school for a month’s time. Chino is participating now, too. It’s great community building; our kids are in public school, and it feels really good to give back to an institution that needs some help.
Grilled corn on the cob with glove-box recado
Chilly as July and August can be in San Francisco, you know it’s summer when this delicious corn hits the Tacolicious menu. (It is so good that it transports you to sunshine, even if the city is socked in by fog and you’re wearing a scarf.) If you already have the recado ready to go, this recipe is a cinch to make. Although the smokiness of the grill imparts great flavor, you can instead briefly boil the corn ears, halve them, and toss them with the recado–lime juice mixture. With the lime and the spices, no butter is needed. Try swapping out the corn for another vegetable, such as summer squash. To keep this recipe in the snack realm, chop the ears into thirds.
4 ears corn, shucked and silk removed
2 tablespoons El Jefe’s glove-box recado (below), plus more if needed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice, plus more if needed
Prepare a medium-hot fire for direct-heat cooking in a grill. Place the ears of corn on the grill rack and grill, turning them as needed to color evenly, for 10 minutes, until they have a bit of char to them but haven’t cooked so much that the kernels have wrinkled. You want to maintain the sweet, fresh corn crunch. Remove from the grill and cut in half crosswise. In a large bowl, mix together the recado and lime juice. Add the corn and toss until evenly coated. Take a bite of one ear and adjust the remaining ears with more recado and lime juice to taste. Serve hot.
El Jefe’s glove-box recado
Like some sort of drug dealer, Joe (aka the big boss) has been known to keep a small plastic bag of this addictive Mexican spice rub in his glove box. And indeed, it’s never a bad thing to have on hand. Although the recipe has a few steps to it, it’s well worth the effort. At the restaurant, we use it to season everything from corn on the cob to chicken to our Spring booty taco. When cooking with it, just beware that it’s quite salty. Also, it keeps for a long time, which means that you may want to make a double batch.
MAKES ABOUT 1 1/2 CUPS
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
15 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 cup kosher salt
Line a plate with a paper towel. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the ancho chiles and fry, turning once, for about 1 minute on each side, until puffy and crispy. Be careful they do not to burn.
Transfer the anchos to the paper-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the chipotle chiles. Let the chiles cool completely. Toast the oregano in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently to prevent burning, for about 1 minute, until fragrant. Let cool completely.
Transfer the ancho chiles to a spice grinder, grind to a powder, and transfer to a small bowl. Repeat with the chipotle chiles, followed by the oregano. (If you cannot fit the chiles into your spice grinder, grind them in the food processor in the next step.) In a food processor, combine the garlic, salt, ground oregano, and ground chiles and process until the mix has a fine, grainy, sandy consistency similar to that of coffee grounds. If the mixture is damp, turn on the oven to the lowest setting, spread the mixture on a baking sheet, and place the pan in the oven until the mixture dries out, stirring it every 10 minutes. Alternatively, spread the mixture on the baking sheet and let it sit out overnight at room temperature, stirring it a few times. Use now or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Guajillo-braised beef short rib taco
Everyone has his or her favorite Tacolicious taco, but this is mine, hands down. These short ribs cooked slowly with guajillos break down into the perfect braised meat: rich, a tad spicy, and appropriately messy—a true sign of greatness. You can ask your butcher to bone the ribs for you, or you can just cook them with the bone in and then bone them before shredding the meat. You’ll need 5 pounds of bone-in short ribs to yield the required 3 pounds of meat. This dish can be on the spicy side, so if you’re really sensitive to heat, cut back a little on the chiles.
MAKES 16 TACOS; SERVES 4 TO 6
8 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 pounds boneless beef short ribs
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 (12-ounce) bottle Negro Modelo or other dark Mexican beer
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 cup water
Corn tortillas, warmed, for serving
Chopped white onion, chopped fresh cilantro, salsa of choice, and lime wedges, for serving
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Working in two batches if necessary to avoid crowding, lightly toast all of the chiles in a dry, heavy skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds on each side, until fragrant but not blackened. Set them aside on a plate.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot with a lid over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, working in batches to avoid crowding, add the meat and sear for about 3 minutes on each side, until the pieces have formed a uniformly browned crust. Add more oil to the pot as needed to prevent scorching. As the pieces are ready, set them aside on a plate.
Add the onion to the same same pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until it starts to brown. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
Pour in the beer, add the toasted chiles, and turn down the heat to low.
Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until the chiles have softened and are pliable. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Transfer the contents of the pot to a blender and reserve the pot. Add the cumin, pepper, oregano, salt, and water to the blender and blend the mixture on high speed until smooth and the consistency of cream, adding more water if needed to thin the mixture a bit.
Return the seared meat to the pot and pour in the chile mixture. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 hours, until the meat is fork-tender.
Remove from the oven and, using tongs or a couple of forks, shred the meat in the pot. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed. Serve with the tortillas, onion, cilantro, salsa, and lime.
Meet Sara Deseran, Joe Hargrave and Telmo Faria and Mike Barrow, Authors of Tacolicious
Join us to celebrate the debut of the Tacolicious cookbook! It’s an essential addition to your cookbook collection, with recipes for everything from tacos to tamales, and margaritas to micheladas. Sara, Joe, Telmo and Mike will be there to sign copies and divulge recipe short-cuts and restaurant secrets. Purchase tickets today to attend a special book signing and cooking demo at your local Williams-Sonoma store.
Friday, September 5, 2014 at 5:00-6:00pm
340 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94108
Please visit EventBrite to purchase tickets.
Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 2:00pm
122 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, CA 95030
Please visit EventBrite to purchase tickets.
Stanford Shopping Center
Saturday, September 27, 2014 at 12:00pm
180 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94304
Please visit EventBrite to purchase tickets.
We hope to see you there!
*Sarah, Joe, Telmo and Mike will only be signing copies of Tacolicious purchased at the Williams-Sonoma store where the event is being held or via EventBrite. Proof of purchase required.