Titans of tacos

Bobby Hodge of The Macintosh faced Clayton Horrighs of Aya Cookhouse in Aya’s penultimate battle.

On most nights, Bobby Hodge’s job involves breaking down grouper and saucing mahi-mahi with hot-and-sour bacon dashi. The Macintosh fish chef doesn’t prepare much finger food.

But on a night off earlier this month, Hodge trooped over to West Ashley’s Mex 1 with his co-workers to make hundreds of thick-shelled tacos heaving with oxtail mole, charred corn, shishito peppers, pickled onions, avocado and cotija cheese. “We don’t do tacos, but we’re trying,” the burly chef said, his deep voice seated somewhere in the hopeful register. “This is representative of our food.”

With his clavicle-length beard, camouflage print apron and sleeve tattoos, Hodge looks the part of a hunting camp cook. Yet the trophy he was chasing at Mex 1 was a massive wrestling belt, reserved for the winner of Taco Kick, an ongoing taco-and-cocktail tournament pitting local restaurant staffs against each other.

Sponsored by the Charleston chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, the sporadic competition is officially charitable: Proceeds go to the trade organization’s emergency fund for members facing health crises. But its unofficial purpose is equally important. Since its inception more than a year ago, Taco Kick has provided a roving venue for the city’s hospitality workers to enjoy the food and drink that drew them to the industry, without the distractions of whiny customers or difficult bosses.

At Mex 1, seats were taken by line cooks, bar managers and servers, who supplemented their sampling with beers and baskets of chips and salsa. Even chef Bob Waggoner showed up. While anyone with 15 bucks to trade for a pair of tacos and matching drinks can attend a Taco Kick contest, the event really belongs to the restaurant professionals who almost never get to play guest.

Taco Kick was dreamed up by Katie DeHart, general manager of Brasserie Gigi. She’d initially wanted to join a group, not start one. The Charleston Brown Water Society, a whiskey-focused fraternity of bartenders, sommeliers and food writers, had gotten organized in 2013, soon after DeHart arrived from San Francisco. DeHart presented herself to the founders as a fellow whiskey lover. “And they were like, you can’t be in it because you’re a woman,” she recalls (the group has since extended invitations to a few of the members’ female friends.)

DeHart decided to put together a more inclusive organization, featuring perhaps the most inclusive of all foods: Tacos. “All chefs can cook a good taco,” she says. She wanted “another forefather,” so recruited respected bartender John Aquino to help craft the first matchup schedule.

A few of the couplings reflected existing friendly rivalries, based on geography or staff overlap. “Gigi against High Cotton was ruthless,” says DeHart, who worked at the nearby Maverick Southern Kitchen restaurant before shifting to her current position. Mostly though, the bracket ignored restaurants’ stated styles, with the idea that everyone is equal in someone else’s kitchen. Taco Kick is so democratic that participants aren’t asked to pay dues: The $250 ingredient budget provided to each restaurant team is drawn from ticket sales, while sponsoring liquor companies supply the alcohol.

Mex 1 was declared the first season’s champion, hurtling to victory by making and remaking its “bangin’ shrimp taco,” which now leads off the restaurant’s taco menu. This season, participating teams have come up with new tacos for each showdown, including The Macintosh’s triumphant meeting with Zero Cafe + Bar and Aya’s recent rendezvous with Crave. That contest went in the Asian restaurant’s favor, thanks to a beef short rib taco with umeboshi mayonnaise and kimchi slaw.

Despite the win, Aya’s co-owner Tony Chu was anxious about competing against The Macintosh in the semifinals. “Tony’s so nervous,” his wife, co-owner Kelly Chu, confided. “He’s like, ‘It’s too much sauce, it’s too much sauce.’ ”

Chu was especially concerned that the preparation he’d worked out in the Aya kitchen with chef Clayton Horrighs wouldn’t scale. Their elaborate recipe called for ahi tuna poke, skin-on Asian bacon, shrimp, homemade wonton crisps, nori, ponzu sauce and dashi-brined mushrooms. “It’s a whole metamorphosis,” Chu said of the complexities involved in translating the nuanced flavor profile of “sweet salinity” for a large audience of practiced connoisseurs.

Competitors are judged not only on the quality of their taco and accompanying cocktail, but on how well the pairing works. For his cocktail entry, Chu mixed aged tequila with citrus honey and cabernet sauvignon, meant to echo the oaky qualities of the spirit. “This drink is the balance of tequila’s true essence,” Chu said of the cocktail, fancily finished with a Champagne floater and lemon zest.

Judging duties are split between attendees and a panel of bartenders: Their professional opinion counts more than the popular vote. At Mex 1, Aquino shared the judges’ table with Jon Calo of Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill.

“That’s one of the best things I’ve had in my life,” Aquino said as he marked up his score sheet for Aya’s taco. “These two (entries) tonight were sick.”

The crowd apparently agreed with Aquino’s assessment. Aya was declared the winner, allowing the restaurant to proceed to the finals. Aya will face Voodoo Tiki Bar at Burwell’s at 9 p.m. Monday.

Strikingly, despite the preponderance of restaurant folks in attendance, Taco Kick tends to be a relatively calm affair (aside from the competing chefs’ sweating and pacing). Charleston’s bartenders, servers and cooks, nearly all of whom work in drastically understaffed environments, are tired. Still, Mex 1’s Roddy Smith says the specter of craziness is part of the fun.

“It’s a food-and-bev crowd, so you never know what’s going to happen,” Smith says.