The Road to Galaxy Taco

The Road to Galaxy Taco

Part of the process of developing a new restaurant concept is being exposed to what others are doing. I have a clear vision for Galaxy Taco—what I want the menu, decor, music, style of service and bar program to be—but it always helps to see what people you respect in the industry are doing.

In the past year, as anyone that follows me on Instagram or Twitter can attest to, I have been eating a lot of Mexican food. We went to Austin to cook at Foreign & Domestic and used it as an excuse to eat at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in the U.S.—the highly underrated El Naranjo. I had eaten at Iliana and Ernesto’s restaurant when they had it in Oaxaca years ago, and have been to their Austin location several times. It features a great mescal and tequila list, well-made cocktails, house-made tortillas and incredible classic Oaxacan food that shows their personality. I have tremendous respect for this restaurant and highly suggest it if you are ever in Austin.

I also took a strategic trip to Chicago and New York City in the beginning of December. Chicago has some incredible Mexican food, from very authentic holes-in-the-wall to all of Rick Bayless’ restaurants. A good friend and incredible chef, Paul Kahan, has one of my favorite places anywhere. Big Star is a very casual place that takes its inspiration from the country music that came out of Bakersfield in the 30s and 40s.

When I arrived from the airport and we sat down for a beer I asked Paul how he describes Big Star to someone that has never been. I wanted to know because our marketing people want a clear short explanation of what Galaxy will be, which I was and am still struggling to put into a couple sentences. Paul was not able to explain it in a snapshot either. His answer boiled down to “we love agave spirits and Bourbon, and wanted a place we could smash them together, serve casual Mexican food and play great country and rock-and-roll.”

Of course that does not fit any mold of what a Mexican restaurant is, and that is why Big Star is such a unique and cool place. It does not take itself seriously, but takes its products very seriously. It is an incredibly busy restaurant (up to 2,500 fish tacos a week), but they hand press every tortilla to order—not in front of the guests as a show, but because it’s the best way to do it. It is one of the busiest bars in Chicago, but all the juices are squeezed fresh daily and the cocktails are made with the best ingredients.

I spent three days hanging with Paul, his chef Cary and bar manager Laurent, to see how these guys deal with the incredible volume without taking any shortcuts, demand excellence no matter what the obstacles, and do it with a sense of humor and creativity. At its core, this is what I love about Mexican food and culture, and Big Star embodies it in their own style—a quality restaurant, with a sense of humor, that does not take itself too seriously, but serves great products. That is my goal at Galaxy as well.

From Chicago, I flew to New York City with one goal in mind: to spend time with my friend Daniela Soto-Innes, chef de cuisine at Enrique Olvera’s groundbreaking Mexican restaurant Cosme. We first met over the phone when my friend Bobby Matos (who used to work for us at George’s at the Cove and has gone on to do great things) introduced us. Daniela was in between jobs and considering a move to California.

We decided to meet in person in Mexico City as we were both going to Mesamerica, the Latin food conference started by Enrique. She ended up being a great host, showed us around Mexico City and we have stayed in touch ever since. She decided to stay in Mexico City to work at Pujol, Enrique’s well-regarded restaurant, and is now in NYC. Cosme has received incredible accolades in their first year including a three star revue in The New York Times.

Although their food is incredible, what I really wanted to see was their masa production. They nixtamalize and grind their own corn and produce some of the best tortillas available outside of Mexico. We met up on a Monday when the restaurant is closed and Daniela walked me through the entire process. Although they follow the normal procedures for Nixtamal, they have added their own subtle changes that make an end product with perfect flavor and texture. Most tortillas can be dry and crack when folded. These tortillas are a revelation—tender and supple, with perfect texture and flavor.

Nixtamalization typically refers to a process for the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled.

 

I plan to write more about my thoughts and point-of-view about tortillas, masa production and corn in future posts. As a chef, it has proven to be one of my most challenging and interesting processes. Very few places do it well, and our humble goal is to do it well. We have been experimenting for a while now, and serve a taco as part of our TBL3 experience where we produce the tortilla from scratch. We started out buying masa from a local tortilleria and have since transitioned into doing the whole process in house.

Something to think about until next time: what does it mean when a restaurant has a person making tortillas to order in front of the guests? Yes, the tortillas are fresh, but what about the quality of the masa? Don’t be fooled into thinking that because they do it in front of you, it’s a great product. Very few places grind their own masa in house.

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The bar at Big Star


Fresh juice for service at Big Star


The outside ordering counter at Big Star


Making tortillas at Big Star


Tortillas at Cosme


New York strip taco, fried shishitos, avocado-tarragon purée at Cosme