There’s this huge variety of flavors and ingredients that just haven’t been exposed here. That’s what really got me excited. That’s what I wanted to explore with the Brooklyn Taco Company. -Jesse Kramer
by Thomas Santella
There are few more satisfying dishes than a freshly made, well balanced taco. A good taco delivers a cacophony of flavors – salty, sweet, slightly acidic, sometimes spicy, often (but not always) tempered by crema or queso fresco. A great taco, like Frank Gehry’s majestic tower at 8 Spruce Street, melds its components in a way that’s surprising, that challenges your conception of the form.
But is a comparison between a multi-million dollar skyscraper and a taco going to far? Perhaps. The taco is a humble food, assembled and eaten by hand, equally enjoyed sitting down or standing up and more often than not, consumed a few paces away from the person who cooked and prepared it. The tacos at Brooklyn Taco Company manage to walk the line between art and artisanal: beautiful, rustic, imaginative, impressively deliberate, delicious. These are tacos on a mission.
I recently sat down with Brooklyn Taco Company owner Jesse Kramer to find out how moving to Sunset Park resulted in an obsession with Mexican food and inspired him to start a business.
How did you get started in the food business?
I always wanted to own a restaurant. I worked front-of-house in restaurants for years. I just loved the environment. I was working at one brasserie and it was just a lot of fun – everyone was having a good time, and I was like…how can I do this? Originally, I thought I’d move to New York, become a lawyer, make a lot of money, and then dump it into my own restaurant. It never occurred to me to make food.
Where were you coming from?
I was in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a huge restaurant city. I was working in restaurants, and I knew everybody in them–all the chefs, it’s a very tight community. And that’s what I realized…that restaurants are a very small world. It’s awesome. I would even love to get back there at some point, but now’s not the right time.
So I moved up here, got a job at a law firm as a paralegal, worked there two years and couldn’t even imagine putting in the five or more years I’d need to make enough money to open a restaurant, so I kept thinking of ways to make it happen.
And then it clicked…the French Culinary Institute was in Soho, and I figured, “You know, it’s a one-year program, and even if I don’t do anything with it, I won’t regret it because cooking such a good skill to have.” That was 2009. I did it, and instantly fell in love with making food.
I left the law firm when I started at cooking school, and I got a job at Danny Meyer’s Maialino, doing prep work at the salumi station before eventually moving up to brunch. I was working and going to school, which was miserable – my day started at 5am, and I wouldn’t get home until 7pm or so. My girlfriend and I were working completely opposite hours. We never saw each other, and we realized we needed to take a step back, and figure out a way we could join together — work on something together, invest in something together.
Initially we liked the idea of doing a food truck, but after researching it for a few months, we realized that it was almost impossible to legitimately get into it on your own.
What was difficult about doing the food truck thing?
Food trucks are all permit-based. Without the golden ticket of a permit, you cannot operate a food truck. There’s a kind of black market for permits. It works like taxi medallions. When a permit holder shuts down for whatever reason, their license is then sublet to other operators, and sublet again and again. It’s all kind of shadowy. I didn’t want to be building a business and a brand and not have full control of my destiny.
So what was the next move?
We went back to the drawing board. Right around that time, we moved from Park Slope to Sunset Park, and we instantly fell in love with the Mexican food there. It was really the first time we’d ever had good, authentic Mexican food. I was like, “Wow! This is amazing!”
I started going to Mexican grocery stores, markets and bodegas, and was just fascinated by all these foods and ingredients I had never even heard of before. I started doing a lot of research – reading books about traditional Mexican cuisine by Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, Harold McGee, Patricia Quintana, Mark Miller. And I started eating at the local taquerias all the time. I just got sucked in.
So you were just practicing at home?
Right – practicing at home, using what I’d learned at FCI to really deconstruct and figure things out. When you’re a young chef, you’re pretty insecure. I wasn’t sure how good the food I was making was, but the more I did it, the more confident I got. And it got better and better. I got accustomed to the herbs and spices used in really traditional Mexican cooking. I knew what things should taste like, and how things should be cooked. And it got to a point where dish after dish, I was like, this fucking rocks!
It’s interesting – at the taquerias in Sunset Park, you’re getting classic Mexican food. 90% of it is from Puebla – Poblanos are the biggest Mexican immigrant group in New York. You can get your enchiladas, your carne asada, your pork…you can get all the same things pretty much everywhere. Some are better than others, and they all have their different variations, and you can learn from that.
But…there’s this entire culture of female home cooks that use all kinds of ingredients that you don’t find in most of those taquerias. You have to look really hard for the few spots that use that entire palette of Mexican flavors and ingredients. There’s this huge variety of flavors and ingredients that just haven’t been exposed here. That’s what really got me excited. That’s what I wanted to explore with the Brooklyn Taco Company.
How did you actually get started?
We launched last December. We started out at Artists and Fleas, the weekly market in Williamsburg. It had just moved into a really nice location and we jumped on the opportunity to start there. It was slow in the beginning, but looking back that was a good thing because we got to see what people liked and what they didn’t like. We got to try new recipes, tweak things. And it gave us some exposure.
How did the menu develop?
I’d been testing recipes for months before we launched at Artists and Fleas. We knew that we needed some good vegetarian options in that market, so we did a few things like our Portobello mushroom taco, with a Mexican pesto. Instead of the Italian-style pesto, we used cilantro, poblano peppers, garlic, cotija cheese…It looks exactly like pesto but has a completely different flavor profile.
We did a potato taco with purple, white and yellow potatoes mixed with stewed poblanos, corn, a few salsas and crema – the traditional Mexican sour cream (which is our favorite condiment. It goes on everything.)
A lot of our recipes weren’t traditionally Mexican, but they were completely rooted in Mexican flavors. There are tacos in Mexico that use potatoes, poblanos and corn, but not necessarily in the way we use them.
Eventually we started getting more carnivorous. I decided to use brisket. Mexicans don’t use brisket in tacos, but I wanted to build something around it. There’s a sauce from Sinaloa called chilorio that’s traditionally used with pork. I made some, and when I smelled it and tasted it, I knew we were onto something. I used it on the brisket – braised it – and when we tried it, we knew. This was it. People loved it. We’ve had a number of vegetarians ‘bend the rules’ for that one. Time Out wrote it up.
So you have this brisket that’s been braised in this really interesting chilorio sauce which we make with garlic, ancho chilies, parsley and other things, until it’s so tender that you don’t even need to chew it, then we add mango, lime, cilantro, and cotija and it creates these layers of flavor that are awesome together.
Another really popular one is our Guaco Taco. It’s so simple. Some taquerias have their own versions of the guacamole taco, but I wanted to add a wow factor to ours. Instead of basically pureeing the guacamole like a lot of places do, we leave it chunky. We add corn, tomatoes and red onions, and it ends up a really colorful mix of greens and yellows, reds and purples. We add a green habañero salsa, which is pretty hot, and finish it with some crema and cotija cheese. So you get the buttery avocado and cotija, the tangy crema, and the sharpness of the hot sauce, and the flavors layer together really well. It brings you up, then back down without killing you with spice.
The origins of it all are Brooklyn – Sunset Park. Brooklyn is just amazing, I could take you four avenues over for the most authentic banh mi sandwich you’ll find outside of Vietnam. I could take you to 80th street and show you a Chinese market that will blow your mind…or we can walk around my neighborhood and it’s pure Mexican.
And there’s this whole world of entrepreneurs out there at the Brooklyn Flea and Artist and Fleas and all these markets. You know, they didn’t start with a million dollars like Danny Myers did to open Union Square Café…it’s like the American dream to a certain extent. If you can build a business, a little start up, it’s pretty awesome. And people are doing that here.
These markets provide a real opportunity for people like me. If I had not considered markets as a potential venue to start I would have said screw it. Restaurants are like three hundred plus thousand dollars to even get the doors open, then operating costs…we just pay for the day we operate at the markets. I pay for a rental kitchen only on the days I need the space. We have insurance…all that stuff, but it’s a very efficient business model.
What are your favorite food spots in Sunset Park?
So I have about two or three places that I love, they’re in Sunset Park…one of them is Tacos el Bronco, they’re from Puebla, Matamoros, but that’s a very popularized place that a lot of city people have figured out…it’s on Yelp, it’s on Google, it’s known. Xochimilco is really good…There are a lot of great tacos, but you’re gonna notice that a lot of the flavors are pretty similar because they’re almost all from the same region of Mexico. So if you find a good place, you’re gonna keep going there. Some places are just spot on.
I didn’t want to do tacos that were copies of anyone else’s…I do it my way so at the end of the day no one can say, “who the fuck are you copying?”
How’s the response been so far?
When we started at Hester Street Fair this year, a bunch of the vendors went to Suchin Pak, one of the founders of the market, and were like, “Who are these freaking kids slinging tacos?” The line was way back, really long, for the tacos, and that’s a really good feeling. That’s what even when you’re working your ass off, laboring and struggling to keep up and get it all done…it’s why you keep going. It’s a great feeling when something you’re making with your hands is being appreciated.
I’m learning a lot, which is another reason I love it. Early on I was making way too much food because I was so worried about running out. Now we sell out – it’s tight. It would take you years working as a line cook to figure this stuff out. I went back to Maialino to say hi to everyone. They all have more kitchen experience than I do, but a lot of them are kind of envious because I went out and did what I wanted to do.
The hard work will pay off. We’re making sure it’s going to happen. We’re a machine now. I by no means want to be some kind of almighty chef. There are so many things that I don’t know. I just want to make good food.