Dario Wolos has just opened the coolest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so cool that I’m thinking of not moving out of my neighborhood. Dario has redefined Nolita with a restaurant concept that I just love, taking over the former Groupe space on Elizabeth between Houston and Prince. That shop was famous for the sports cars parked in the entrance. You would walk past a Charger or a Lotus, channel James Bond or Steve McQueen, and need to look sharp, buy their gear. The Lotus has been replaced by a Volkswagon Camper, from which tacos are sold. Inside Tacombi, the high ceilings and low lighting creates the feeling that you are outdoors, in a park. This is my new favorite eatery, and I haven’t even taken a bite. This week, Dossier linked up with Dario, and I’ve been popping by. The place is superb for an event. I sat down with Dario and learned everything a reasonable person needs to know about tacos, which are apparently not just a food, but a way of life.
Dario, tell me about how this thing started. What are you doing here in America? Let’s see, so I grew up in a city in the north of Mexico called Monterrey. I had a mixed background: I had an international father and a Mexican mother, so I’ve always spent half my time in Mexico, and half my time outside. One of the things I always missed when I left Mexico was just going to eat tacos downtown. As I grew up, friends from abroad would come back to Mexico, and one of the experiences they liked the most was the simple street taquerias. They were in the city centers of Mexico. I mean, that’s kind of where that whole passion started. And it’s been something that’s been on my mind since I was 15. I got caught up in finance and economics, and it took me away from it until about 5 years ago, when I had a chance to go back to Mexico. I was living in London, and I was thinking of starting this business in London, but some friends told me that maybe since I’d never done this before, to go back to Mexico, learn the trade properly, and then take it somewhere else—if that was really what I wanted to do. And so that’s kind of where it all started, that’s where the feeling came from.
Tell me what’s going on. This little place used to be a boutique on my block, and a couple weeks later there’s these garage doors. You walk in and you feel like you’re in somebody’s backyard, or a square somewhere, and there’s a 1964 red and white VW camper parked inside. They’re serving tacos. It’s got tables with backgammon sets, you’ve got checkerboards, and just old reclaimed wood, and skylights, so it feels like you’re outdoors at a really cool party. It’s all about the taco stand. This is the tacombi. Combi is Mexican Spanish for VW bus, and taco plus combi equals tacombi. That’s the name of the place. This bus kind of came out of a drunk conversation on the beach in Mexico, and I was trying to think of how to let people, who didn’t grow up in Mexico, understand that feeling of what it’s like to grow up in a place like this. What do all these places represent in Mexico? The general feeling in Mexico, when you go to a taco stand, is that it’s kind of the place where every person, from every background, can mingle. Mexico has a social/economic divide, so it’s very rich or poor, there’s not much in the middle, but you go to a taco stand, and everyone eats there. The street cleaner will go and pay a couple cents for his tacos, and so will the big executive at the bank. That’s the thing that’s special about the taco stand, it’s equal to everyone. It’s about eating the food that’s usually made by a mom and pop operation. The family wakes up really early in the morning, then one of the two (or both the mom or the pop) takes the tacos to the market, and sells them until they runs out, and that’s it. Everyone’s interacting, everyone’s on their feet, and it’s a very nice simple tradition for everyone to come and eat.
How did you end up on my block, in my hood? So I started this thing in Mexico five years ago, and my life pretty much took me to this beach town called Playa del Carmen that gets a lot of tourists. I decided to start there, but I always had New York in the back of my head. I would get lots of visits from Manhattanites, and they would keep telling me that this was the kind of thing that New York wanted. I have such a respect for what the city has to offer; the diversity, the sophistication, the artistic background, all the different components that make New York such a wonderful place, that’s what attracted me to it. After living on a beach where you didn’t really have anything developing, the city itself attracted me, so when I got here, I knew it had to be in a place where it would have enough space to where you wouldn’t be touching anyone’s elbows. A place where you could sit down and have room to stretch out your elbows, and have room to be with your friends. That need reduced the amount of options I had, venue-wise. I needed a high ceiling to put the tacombi in there, and I needed some plants in there a bit, some tall plants so people would begin to feel a relationship between themselves, and the plants, and where they’re sitting down. I knew I needed a large kind of shoebox, a canvas that I could work with. Looking around the city, there’s not many places where I could have those options south of 14th street, if not Williamsburg, or other parts of the city. So looking around the neighborhoods, there was something about Elizabeth Street, and Soho, and Nolita in general just clicked, something about the history that was there just presented itself.
For me it’s the best neighborhood I’ve ever lived in. Incredible diversity, incredible creative forces. A lot of that creativeness has moved to Brooklyn, as far as I’m concerned, because of the rent. The types of people who have been moving in have changed. There’s still a core crowd of great people here. It’s still a great neighborhood, and your entry makes me ponder about staying here. Are you nervous at this point? Are you about to open? We’re about to open. I’m nervous because it’s a strong city, it has a lot of character, and I spent 5 years on a pretty chilled out beach. Moving from Mexico to London, it chilled me out, but in NY, going to restaurants, the experience is meant to be relaxing. When you go out to eat, it’s a time when it’s about you and the person that makes the food for you. It’s a service, it’s an interchange, and it’s an essential part of life, right? We’ve had about 20 events so far that have been testing grounds and the “get-to-know-yous” of the space, and some crowds have been easy and some haven’t. Some have been a little rough around the edges. It’s been a different mix depending on what we’re offering. I’ve been trying to use everything to see how people interact with the space. A lot of people take the tables, move them around, put them together, and kind of form groups of eight or four. That’s one of the things about the light, simple furniture that we chose. I mean this place is completely—it’s a pop-up concept in a space. We’ve actually taken everything inside the space and popped it up inside a garden. We took it to the MOMA sculpture garden and just popped it up there. That was a luxury in itself.
Tell me about your taco. Tell me about your recipes. This is a very taco sort of neighborhood. Tell me why I should eat your taco. Tacos in Mexico are not just a food product, it’s a way of enjoying your food, so if you grew up in a Mexican family in Mexico, you put tortillas on your table like most people have bread on their table. So everyday of your life, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’re accustomed to putting everything you see into a taco. So you roll up your tortilla and you dip it in your soup, you go to a BBQ at a friends place on the weekend and someone’s chopping up the meat and there’re tortillas on the grill because something is always, in some form or another, in a taco—unless you have some kind of a fancy set up, and you’re not allowed because you have to subscribe to a European way of acting. But pretty much everything else in Mexico is all about tacos. The chef that I partnered with here in New York, who is also Mexican, was born on the border of Mexico and the US in El Paso, Texas. His mother moved to the city about 30 years ago and opened Zarella’s. His name is Aaron Sanche, and he kind of grew up in his mother’s kitchen, and has made a mark for himself on the Food Network. He’s a super chill New Yorker, very proud of his Mexican roots, but educated in the modern world of NY kitchens and continental kitchens across the US. Plus, what he’s taken now from his career is maintaining a passion about the food he makes. It’s a cultural experience. At the end of the day, it’s just a taco, but it’s a cultural intricacy about how to enjoy the taco that’s just different in Mexico than it is here. Here it’s been sectioned off into fast food, so people think a taco is just fast food. It’s Inexpensive, cheap, fast. What we wanted to do was kind of capture this tradition in Mexico about how the taco is part of life there, just as the sandwich is here in the US.
Taco is not just a food, it’s a way of life. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion but it’s what I do, I’ve been doing this for five years.
It’s too late to not blow it out of proportion. When are you opening this joint? Soon we will be opening the doors for breakfast tacos. We’re going to start with breakfast tacos and coffee, and that’s when people can first enjoy it. I think it’s going to be nice, because it’s going to be a quieter time of day. I’m sure the evenings will be busier. For the first week, the 13th to the 20th, we will have breakfast and lunch tacos coming out of the place. Breakfast tacos are fun because they’re flour tortillas, so flour tortillas and different kinds of egg combinations. And then for lunch and dinner we will have a selection of fresh tacos from around the country. I’ve driven all over Mexico and we’ve put our heads together to come up with different recipes from different parts of the country, and we’ll basically be throwing them out there. We’re not going to have a set menu: if you’re vegetarian there’s a vegetarian option, if you’re gluten free there’s a gluten free option, if you’re a hardcore carnivore, there’s a carnivore option, and if you like fish tacos, I think we’re going to have the best fish tacos in the city.
All in all, how many different types of tacos are you going to serve in a month? Probably about 20 different types in a month. Any given week you’ll probably get to taste 7 to 10 different flavors.
How big are they? How many do you eat for a meal? A little bit smaller than a coffee saucer. For a light appetite, you’ll eat three, hungry you’ll eat six. But we’ve had people eating 15.
What is a traditional taco? The tacos has three components: the tortilla, which is like the bread of a sandwich. The quality of the tortilla is very important. We found a NY couple, a Mexican husband and his American wife, who opened up a little place called Tortilleria Nixtamal, in Corona, Queens. What these people do is, they make tortillas the traditional way that you don’t even see in Mexico anymore, you can only find it in the countryside in Mexico.They buy their corn grounded down, and they give you like the best, fresh corn tortilla you can get.
So you start with the tortilla, and then? Next is the meat, so it can be meat of fish or vegetarian. Around Mexico there’s thousands of different ways. In Mexico there’s immigrants from Lebanon, Europe, all around the country. We take different recipes that have come from these different cultures around the country. Let’s take beef for example. My favorite taco is braised tongue. Slow cooked for about eight hours, it doesn’t taste like tongue at all. If you know your taco, barbacoa de lengua is kind of the hardcore, old school Monterey taco. Aaron makes a great pork belly taco. It’s popular right now in New York restaurants. He takes pork belly, puts a special rub on it from Southern-Central Mexico, Achiote goes on top. Usually you have a slaw on top, a salad of sort, but it’s not called a salad. And there’s no toppings, there’s no translation for what it is. You basically get some kind of vegetables cut on top of it, typically cilantro and onion. From there, there are variations. We have our own variations, and then there’s salsa. If you ask Mexicans, half of them will say that the tortilla is the most important thing, and the other half will tell you salsa is the most important thing. The salsa is basically a mild green or red based tomato sauce. There’s all different ways to cook them. You can fry them, cook them, boil them raw with lime. After that, if you want to make it spicy, we have about four extremely spicy sauces. So you can go mild or go hardcore and have the really spicy sauces.
I’m getting quite an education here today. Have you thought about teaching taco classes? The space is set up for something like that. Our chef is a show chef, so he knows how to teach and how to act. He’s natural, but the whole rear of the space is all completely open kitchen, so you can see the process. So we are actually meant to have Aaron teaching once in a while.
I’m a Taco Bell kind of guy. Are there Taco Bells in Mexico? There’s Taco Bell in Mexico. It’s like eating a snickers.