Centro Taco Opens Today: Oysters, Tacos, and Vegan Cookies

Cart of treasures
Cart of treasures
Photo by Laine Doss

Chef Richard Hales' Centro Taco opens today at 125 SE Third Ave. At a friends-and-family dinner last evening, the chef finished setting up only minutes before the door opened. He pointed to the light fixtures and said they went up at some point in the wee hours of the morning. "I was sitting right in that corner at about 3 a.m. and saying to myself, Why am I still here?"

The chef, who owns Sakaya Kitchen and Blackbrick, has taken a departure from his previous Asian-inspired menus, but his style of playing with flavors shines right through in this menu. Assisted by chef de cuisine James Seyba and baker/tortilla-maker Erica Cruz, Hales has turned his taco restaurant into a mashup of Mexican, Middle Eastern, vegan, and American flavors. In Hales' hands, it works. Everything — from local Florida gator tacos to traditional al pastor to a vegan version of milk and cookies, served with iced horchata as a spicy dairy substitute — is served in a tight menu packed with flavor.

Latkes
Latkes
Photo by Laine Doss

As diners sipped on mango agua fresca and Wynwood La Rubia, servers passed around a cart filled with small bites. Hales is taking a page out of the dim sum book, figuring that hungry people can choose a few small items while waiting for their meals. "We're located in downtown, and a lot of people are either stressed and hungry from a long workday or need a quick lunch. They can just choose a few dishes from the cart and go or have an item or two before their meal arrives." The cart was loaded with pairs of oysters served with a sangrita mignonette ($3 each oyster), pulled-pork flautas ($4 each), and grit girl bollitas ($6). 

Vegan nosh
Vegan nosh
Photo by Laine Doss

Appetizers included the vegan nosh ($8), a large tray filled with hearty house-made corn chips and a trio of dips — hummus, cashew crema, and pepita. Mixed with the salsas provided on each table, it's more than enough for a table to share for the duration of the meal.

Shakshuka
Shakshuka
Photo by Laine Doss

Shakshuka ($10) is served in an earthenware crock. A runny egg lies on a bed of cheese and piquant tomato sauce, accompanied by warm tortillas. It's a messy, hot, playful dish.

Avocado taco.
Avocado taco.
Photo by Laine Doss

Centro tacos are served individually and include camarón ($6); la gringa, with al pastor, Oaxaca cheese, and pineapple ($4); Florida gator pibil ($4.50); duck pibil ($4.50); steak alambre ($5); and masa-crusted oyster ($6). Try, at least once, to forgo the meat and order the flavorful vegan hongos with Panther coffee mole and achiote vinegar ($3) and the fried avocado with heirloom tomato and hemp seeds ($3). Hales, who now eats a predominantly plant-based diet, knows how to satisfy without the need for animal proteins. It's for the simple reason that the chef learned how to cook flavorful, satisfying meatless meals for his family that his vegan and vegetarian plates are so delicious. Hales, who for now has no plans to take meat off his menus, says going meat-free doesn't mean you have to suffer. "I put a lot of flavor in my food and add some tricks — pepitas, cashews — that make the food satisfying and filling without being heavy."

Vegan cookies and milk
Vegan cookies and milk
Photo by Laine Doss

Of course, no meal is complete without dessert. The chocotaco ($5), a chocolate tortilla with Azucar almond ice cream and cacao nibs, is delightful. Vegans get their very own treat — Wife Hales' cookies and "milk" — two thick, warm, chewy chocolate-chip cookies and a glass of icy horchata. You'll never miss eggs or dairy after enjoying this pairing.

Centro Taco is open Monday through Saturday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. Brunch will begin mid-August.

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