It's a balmy Miami afternoon and Centro Taco is a beehive of activity. Inside the new restaurant, staff are working frenetically on the final details. Some are learning menu items, while others are putting the finishing touches on decor. The sense of urgency — and camaraderie — is palpable. Richard Hales is behind the line, along with chef de cuisine James Seyba and baker/tortilla maker Erica Cruz. Centro Taco is opening in the former Sakaya Kitchen downtown location at 125 SE Third Ave. in just under two weeks and there's much to be done.
The chef has just returned from several trips to Mexico, on a taste-finding mission of sorts. He and Seyba spent days eating at Mexico City's most tony restaurants and off food trucks to discover core flavors to take back to Miami. Hales, who has been to Mexico before, but never to Mexico City, found a passionate culinary tour guide in his driver. "I hooked up with a guy who drove me around. When we got in to the car he said that he could show me where Bourdain ate, but he'd rather show me where he eats. The guy was spot on. I would say I wanted pozole and he would drive 20 minutes across the city for this excellent pozole. In Mexico City, there are a million places for, say, carnitas, but he knew which one was the best." Hales discovered a few things. "We eat a lot of steak tacos, but in Mexico, it's mainly about pork. Tacos are also so simple there. It's just a good tortilla and meat."
Hales said that, while he's not trying to recreate his food experiences bite for bite, his goal is to take the essence of the flavors and use them in his dishes. "That's the point of Centro. I know the debate of authenticity, but things become authentic when their sources support them. If you take that into consideration, you really can't do authentic Mexico City street food here in Miami. Mexican food exists because the people make it exist, so what can we bring to the table? We have so many cultures mixed in to Miami, so that's what the influence becomes. How can we flip all that into a Mexican concept?"
Centro Taco will be open for lunch and dinner, with reasonable pricing. Hales explains, "someone can come in here for lunch and spend $10 and be happy or spend $30 for dinner and be completely satisfied."
The mix of influences, guided by Mexican core flavors can be seen in dishes like the nosh. Here, chef de cuisine Seyba combines three vegan dips — pepita, pasilla hummus, and cashew crema, on one plate with house-made chips made thicker to hold up to scooping the spreads. The chef calls it a little nod to the 305.
Another example of a cultural mashup on a plate are the bolitos de maiz, made with Grit Girl stone ground grits and Oaxaca cheese. If a hush puppy, an arancini, and a mozarella stick had a threesone, this would be the delicious result.
Sangrita marinated jicama with Florida avocado and grapefruit, with toasted almonds is a refreshing starter or palate cleanser between dishes. Seyba says the sangrita is made the traditional way, with citrus and pomegranate juices. "It's a sweet, spicy touch."
Flautas will change daily, depending on what's fresh from the kitchen A chicken flauta is pictured.
Shakshukas are not your typical Mexican dish, but this one is influenced by both Mexico and Miami. A traditional shakshuka rests on a bed of molten cheese and is served with flour tortillas for dipping. All tortillas — bot flour and corn, are made fresh in house daily. The result is a meal that transcends regional and cultural barriers. After all, who doesn't love a baked cheesy eggy dish?
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Tacos also be a combination of traditional and new. A good example is the Florida gator pibil taco. Tacos will be offered individually, at around $3-3.50 each. The taco is a colorful, elegant version of traditional Mexican street food.
Centro Taco is scheduled to open on July 23. and will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch Monday through Friday. Centro Taco will be open for dinner Monday to Saturday, starting at 6 p.m.