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    Tacos: A Hotbed of Innovation in Quick Service

  • Everyone’s favorite Latin import is taking on a life of its own in the U.S. fast-casual industry.

    Otto’s Tacos
    Otto’s Tacos in New York pairs authentic Mexican tacos with Southern California flavors.

    Latin America has made an indelible imprint on the U.S. dining scene, and especially within quick service and fast casual. The street foods of Mexico, Central America, and South America—from burritos to tortas and empanadas to arepas—have become staples at mom-and-pops and polished multiunit concepts alike.

    Probably no Latin American food has conquered the U.S. quite like the taco, however. Some 82 percent of U.S. consumers love or like tacos, and they're equally popular across all demographics, according to Datassential. Piling proteins, cheeses, and other toppings into a corn or flour tortilla has become as standard as whipping up a pizza, burger, or sandwich—and with similarly endless possibilities.

    "Tacos are very versatile; many ingredients work well, even blended together," says Michael Rypka, founder and vice president of marketing and culinary at Austin, Texas–based Torchy's Tacos. "You can have a lot of fun with flavor profiles, and they are affordable and easy to eat."

    Fast casuals like Torchy's have co-opted Latin America's tacos for their own creative menu innovation. While Rypka says Torchy's seeks inspiration in tacos' Central American roots, the brand also features distinct options like the Alabama Shake (catfish, poblano slaw, cotija cheese, peppadew peppers, and avocado sauce), the Trailer Park (fried chicken, green chilies, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheddar jack cheese, and poblano sauce), and the Brushfire (Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled jalapeños, mango, sour cream, cilantro, and diablo sauce).

    Fuzzy's Taco Shop also adds its own taco spin at its 150-plus locations. Like Torchy's, Fuzzy's is based in the taco haven of Texas (Fort Worth) and imbues its Lone Star State mentality into tacos like the Shredded Brisket with garlic sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, cilantro, and feta.

    "Our core ingredients in most tacos are garlic sauce and feta, which separates us from many taco shops," says Greg Salmon, director of R&D. "We've had tacos where a pancake is the shell, and those featuring shrimp and bacon with sriracha lime sauce. We've even served a chicken fried chicken taco with a with creamy verde sauce." Fuzzy's vice president of operations, James Davis, adds that the brand finds inspiration from restaurant-industry trends and from "getting crazy in the kitchen."

    Another Texas-born taco brand (that has since been acquired by Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings) is R Taco. The brand dishes street-style tacos with slow-roasted meats, house-made sauces and toppings, and authentic ingredients like cilantro onion mix, pickled red onion, and Mexican cheeses such as cotija and queso fresco, says brand director Denise Fenton. But the taste of Texas is readily apparent.


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    Jimboy's Tacos


    "We created a fried chicken taco with jalapeño ranch, and a fun nod to our Texas roots with our BBQ Brisket Taco," Fenton says. "Our namesake Rusty Taco is achiote pork with charred pineapple relish."

    Torchy's, Fuzzy's, and R Taco join other Texas taco shops like Tacodeli and Veracruz All Natural in serving breakfast tacos, typically with ingredients like eggs, cheese, potatoes, and proteins.

    Some brands borrow inspiration from California, another hotbed of taco innovation. For example, San Diego's The Taco Stand combines a Baja coastal vibe with tacos like the Camaron, with grilled spicy shrimp, cheese, avocado, cabbage, tomato, and chipotle sauce, and the Grilled Pescado, with mahi mahi, cabbage, cilantro, onions, tomato, avocado, and chipotle sauce.

    Three-unit, New York City–based Otto's Tacos also strives for some California flavor, as founder Otto Cedeno says his goal was to "capture the nostalgia of flavors of home," namely the small taquerias around his native Southern California. Otto's Tacos menu can "get a little weird sometimes," Cedeno says, featuring everything from buffalo chicken tacos to eggplant parmesan tacos. But the core menu also includes staples like chicken, carnitas, and carne asada tacos.

    "Almost everyone can get down with a good taco," he says. "They're almost demographic-breaking, in a sense. We see every walk of life in our shops enjoying them, and that's always really attracted us to the cuisine. I'm a big fan of bringing people together."

    For many taco brands, the approach to taco development is rooted in Latin American authenticity. Just look at Houston-based La Calle Tacos & Tortas. Founder Ramon Soriano was inspired by the street foods of his native Mexico City and developed his recipes for carnitas (braised and shredded pork), barbacoa (slow-cooked beef), birria (spicy stew), and pambazo (stuffed white bread) based on the stands found in his hometown.

    La Calle features tacos like the Pastor, with pork marinated overnight in a special chile and achiote sauce; the Asada, with beef fajita; and the Chorizo. There are also more outside-the-box options like the Nopalitos, which has fresh cactus that is marinated overnight and grilled. The most popular menu item, the Tacos Chilangos, lets guests mix and match five taco options.

    "Street tacos allow you to get several different experiences in one sitting," Soriano says. "If you think about it, with a hamburger you have one experience, with the tacos you can have five different in one plate, and … with guests wanting to personalize their meals more and more, street tacos makes it easier for them."