Tested by tortillas. Conquered by comals. Mastered by masa. Have we just witnessed the Year of the Taco?
Children of the Corn, what do you make of Taco Boy, Taco Spot, Taco Mammacita, Mex 1 Coastal Cantina, 3 Matadors, Juanita Greenberg's Nacho Royale, Cha Cha's Tequila Bar, SOL and STB?
STB, Scratch Taco Boutique, moseyed its way up from the gravel that was Abe's Oyster Bar in Mount Pleasant. With a projected late spring 2013 opening, the taco-centered business plan of Zach Bedell and chef Mat Jones opened Oct. 10, just missing National Taco Day.
Their David Thompson urban-designed taqueria is dedicated to locally sourced ingredients, "scratch" cooking and an embrace of the taco pantheon that includes San Diego fish tacos, Tex-Mex brisket tacos, All-American cheeseburger tacos and French-influenced duck confit.
The owners have taken this restorative snack food (operative words) and have "elevated" its fillings and garnishes with pop-luxe ingredients that are a cause for misunderstanding in the eater universe. Taco lovers want cheap, simple, restrained tortillas preferably with a side of something not to mention salsa and oh, yeah, those chips!
At STB, the well-groomed masa rounds are nestled in custom-made taco racks that serve up the design aesthetic of Jay Fletcher with parallel simplicity and smartness. Take a look around the dining room and bar where the images of Bedell and Jones' vision have been refined to graphic icons of sourcing, supplying, serving and branding by Fletcher's design company.
This street food is immediate: Its fillings do not wait for tendrils of micro greens or gastriques of jalapeno. It is why the taco has been a food truck hero. Compounding the immediacy of the delivery system for a taco at STB is that the sides do not complement the flavor profiles of the taco fillings. Truffle fries and buttermilk dressing-laced loaded fries, Mediterranean-flavor bombed quinoa salad with feta and olives and a side of bok choy are not companions to the house-made Geechie Boy cornmeal tortilla flats.
The kitchen has continued to refine and edit its menu from its October opening. The crostini and gnocchi have left the menu and the goat cheese flan with beet puree is no more.
The Scratch Sampler with blackened chicken, braised brisket and pulled pork fillings and six tortillas of your choice (corn or flour) will not disappoint. Any of the beef fillings - brisket, short rib and cheeseburger - have umami dripping in every bite. The surf and turf with cucumber kimchi is a keeper, though shrimp were substituted for the oysters and the server did not make mention of that.
The Cuban, filled with pork shoulder, beer mustard and tart pickles, was missing its ham. Whether accidents or omissions, more attention is required.
The salads are well-composed. The white chocolate sauce on the shrimp taco salad speaks not to mole but with notes of vanilla and cocoa butter to that iconic poached lobster dish attributed to renowned chefs Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Michel Bras, and it works.
In earlier interviews, the owners stated they were not holding themselves to an "ethnic theme." Cooking from the global pantry provides many liberties. But the eating contract with the guest sets up certain levels of expectations and when you name your establishment a "taco boutique," you had best be prepared to deliver on the namesake.
Whether your taco sensibility was shaped in Austin, San Antonio or a state in Mexico, certain standards do apply. If you expect STB to be a snack shack, you are good; if you are anticipating a Santi's combo platter, not so much.
Beer lovers will be pleased with a balanced, well-thought out beer list. Margarita imbibers will find the flavor combinations at STB engaging. The drinks are short and a bit over-iced, but the flavors, fresh juices, garnishes and seasoned sugars and salts are done well.
Where they misstep on the companion sides for the tacos, they hit the target on dessert. Offerings include creamy brulee brightened by lime, a floral passion fruit layered in a crisp tart and buttery brioche used as the foundation for a bittersweet chocolate bread pudding - a dessert Montezuma could love.
STB promises a 3x100 guarantee - they aim to please 100 percent with the food, the service, the ambiance. And they welcome your telling them if they fall short.
Friendly servers failed on all of our visits to provide salt, pepper or hot sauces unless asked. Since STB prepares a smoky, ruddy house-made hot sauce, you would expect them to showcase what they say they truly care passionately about: scratch cooking and preparations using local ingredients.
The menu iterations since October indicate the team at Scratch is listening to their critics. Let's hope they are not the "scratch" of a racehorse but the scratch of a golfer.
That's a course any business can aim for.