When you eat at the newest addition to the Tequila’s Town family of festive eateries, and you will soon, you can’t order the enchiladas...because they are not on this menu.
You see, what "quietly opened" during the second week of August in the inviting space that had been home to Blowin’ Smoke is not another Tequila’s Town - at least, not by this restaurant’s name and concept.
Though your first glance at Tacos+Tequila’s menu will make you think that you just sat down in a third Savannah iteration of the magnificent Tex-Mex mini-franchise, read carefully and you will soon see that while the fonts and layout are the same, this is definitely not a carbon copy.
Tacos+Tequila is a tasty trip a bit further ‘south of the border’, an ocean-to-ocean Mexican food map of bona fide bites.
"We’re not offering regional Mexican food, like our Mexican ‘specialty platters’, and we’re not offering Tex-Mex," said Melody Rodríguez in a telephone interview this past Saturday.
"We’ve introduced a lot of new items," she continued. "Obviously, we do have our carnitas and al pastor tacos, and our classic carne asada and chicken. Those recipes are done the same way our full-service restaurants are doing [them], but this is really a taqueria concept."
No refried beans and rice here, amigos. Instead, por ejemplo, one á la carte side is black beans, a preparation patterned after coastal Yucatan cooking traditions.
"We have taken a spin in terms of things that we want to offer from Mexico because Mexican cuisine is so expansive and varied," said Rodríguez. "It really is a little bit of everything and all over."
Tacos+Tequila’s menu is both special to this eatery and ample, filling the front and back of a large carte and featuring sixteen taco concoctions and dozens more antojitos, Mexican "small bites" and sharing plates.
"Antojitos is like what tapas is to Spanish cuisine," Rodríguez explained. "That’s usually what you find in bar locations when you go to Mexico."
"The majority are things you can eat with your fingers, using your hands without having to get too formal," she added. "And that’s what the menu is really centered around. Not just tacos but anything that you can hold in your hand and enjoy."
The distinct approach starts with a few dishes para compartir (to share): traditional ceviche in both fish and cauliflower renditions; aguachile, a ceviche-style shrimp marinated in chile verde sauce and served with thinly sliced red onions, cucumbers, and avocado; tacos dorados con papa, half-moon-shaped fried tacos made from potatoes and queso; and esquites, a Mexican street corn dish that is de-cobbed and served in a bowl, the perfect go-with for a couple of tacos.
One subsection of the menu is entitled "So Mexican," and all three dishes are reasons I will be back soon, most likely to start with a choose-your-protein torta, served on a soft bolillo roll.
The tostadas de pulpo is going to be a go-to: octopus marinated in lime juice, olive oil, and herbs and then topped with radishes, onions, jalapeños, cilantro, tomatoes and avocado slices.
If not the octopus, then bring me a huarache, a fried boat-shaped corn-dough masa filled with either grilled chicken, al pastor, asada steak, or pork carnitas and dressed with refried black beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, avocado slices, crema, and queso fresco.
A few of the sixteen street style tacos ($4 each) will be familiar to Tequila’s Town groupies and will never disappoint. Then again, it may prove too tempting not to alternate your choices with each visit, trying each of the unique creations on either soft corn or flour tortillas.
Five of the options are vegetarian. As for the coliflor, I hate cauliflower. I love this taco. My wife let me have a bite of hers. This is how all cauliflower should be served, fried and topped with lettuce, avocado, queso fresco, and chipotle cream sauce. I might order it every time from now on.
Five other tacos feature seafood, including the druthers either to grill or to deep-fry the fish, the latter a preparation not done at the other Tequila’s Town locations. The callos de hacha has grilled baby scallops, chopped cabbage slaw, radishes, cilantro and pickled onions, and the ostiones star fried oysters topped with the same garden garnishes.
For now, the Tacos+Tequila menu and particulars are housed within the Tequila’s Town website umbrella, but Rodríguez expects that a separate web presence will be developed soon, in part to underscore that T+T is truly a different dining experience.
Chef Mauricio Pliego, who opened the Whitaker location back in 2013 and then the Sandfly outpost in 2016, now helms the Habersham Street kitchen, and Beto Jimenez, who also started at the flagship Tequila’s Town when it opened, is T+T’s manager as well as the head mixologist for the entire restaurant group’s drinks program.
T+T EQUALS FOUR
When Blowin’ Smoke surprisingly turned a winter hiatus into a full-on shut-down, the Tequila’s Town family took advantage of the opportunity, bidding on the 1611 Habersham Street property in February and purchasing it just a few weeks later.
"It was a pretty fast deal," said Rodríguez, who serves as Corporate Officer, Marketing Manager, and Social Media Manager for the Tequila’s Town group. "We knew that the location was ideal for the concept that we wanted, and we just went for it.
"We wanted to be able to have an outdoor seating area in our previous restaurants," she explained, referring to their Whitaker Street and Sandfly branches. "But that just wasn’t possible because of [their] locations."
Just last year, the group opened its first non-Savannah Tequila’s Town, in Jacksonville Beach, though it, too, is a full-service restaurant set in a shopping center that does not offer outdoor dining.
The concept of a taqueria and tequila bar in an indoor-outdoor setting fit the retro-fitted garage to a T(+T), a property where the lively atmosphere that Tequila’s Town patrons know well can become an actual al fresco fiesta.
"We love the outdoors," Rodríguez continued, "and Savannah’s just been very dog-friendly. The sun shines here pretty much all year round, and we really just have two seasons."
The social-distancing mandate and widespread quarantine restrictions effectively gave the leadership team of Temo Ortiz, Sergio Ortiz, and Segio Calderon those months to move in and to make the property their own.
"We were very positive," Rodríguez said about the reality of opening a restaurant while many mom-and-pop eateries around the country are struggling to stay afloat. "We said, ‘We’re going to use quarantine to make renovations and to do all the work that we need to do to make it what we want it to be’, and that was honestly it. We just went head-on."
Lemons into lemonade - or, more fittingly, limes into mojitos.
"Ultimately, we purchased the building. A mortgage came with that, and we needed to start making money," she pragmatically added. "Everything kind of came together, and I feel that, being as quiet and slow as the city and the whole infrastructure was, really gave us an opportunity to open on time."
A full kitchen renovation meant new floors, new walls, a new ceiling, brand-new equipment and cold storage. Otherwise, the rest of the renovation was cosmetic, with the overall setup of the space already suiting the concept.
Colors are new and fresh, but the island bar, high top tables, spacious patio are all almost as Blowin’ Smoke left it.
"We were happy to take that over and make it better," Rodríguez said of the special setting that remains as casual and inviting as it always has been.
"We had been wanting to do a taqueria for a long time," she added. "But we didn’t find the ideal space, and now that it did, we’re really happy."
Though the actual name is different, what remains the same at Tacos+Tequila are all of the qualities that this restaurant family has mastered: a warm and casual atmosphere, friendly and fast service, free bottomless chips and salsa, and great food at more-than-reasonable prices.
"We have a team, and that’s exactly what we’ve been from the very beginning," Rodríguez said. "Everybody in our team and in our family focuses on what they need to do, and we focus on our strengths. That’s how we’ve been able to make a lot of these things happen."
If you are Jonesing for a chimichanga, head downtown or drive down to Sandfly, just like you always did. If you want a coliflor taco, and you will, head to T+T. It’s dynamite. (I couldn’t resist.)