John O'Connell studied classic French cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America, but it's his zeal for Mexican fare that led to John's Tacos, a nighttime co-op with Joshua Marcus, owner of Josh's Deli in Surfside.
O'Connell, who moved to Miami from New York three years ago, takes over the acclaimed deli at 6 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Those evenings, house-made tomatillo salsas and freshly fried chips replace Marcus's house-cured pastrami and crisp salmon skins.
"I've known Josh for years, and we've always thought he should do something with his space at night. So I just stepped up to the plate," O'Connell says.
The chef comes to Surfside with a background in the hotel and restaurant industries. He ran a catering company in the Hamptons and worked as a chef at Almondito, the chic East Hampton joint for Mexican cuisine. Before that, he lived in Acapulco, Mexico, where he worked at a hotel, "learned Spanish, and was indoctrinated into real Mexican food."
Like Josh's Deli, John's Tacos is founded upon an unpretentious, homestyle philosophy. O'Connell makes his salsas from scratch. Guacamole and pico de gallo are prepped to order. Chips are fried in-house.
For the time being, because of space constraints at the restaurant, tortillas are made off-premises. O'Connell sources his tortillas from a Miamian who prepares them at home.
"John's Tacos is wholesome and, like Josh's Deli, it's all about having everything homespun. That's what Josh is building his reputation upon, and that's what I want too," he says.
Offerings include antojitos such as chips and guacamole ($6) and chips and pico de gallo ($4). There are also small plates known as botanas: watercress, jícama, and avocado salad ($8) and roasted wild mushroom and goat cheese quesadillas ($9.50).
If you want tacos, O'Connell has seven varieties. Served on corn tortillas, options range from blue crab with guacamole and pico de gallo ($4 each or three for $11) to Baja-style rock shrimp with spicy red chili and lime ($4 each or three for $11) to carnitas with pickled onion, cilantro, and lime crema ($3.50 each or three for $9).
Kat Hinds, who also makes bagels and desserts for Marcus, doubles as pastry chef at John's. Hinds prepares chocolate chipotle cupcakes and will soon also offer guava empanadas.
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O'Connell hopes his taco joint will contribute to the restaurant scene in Surfside. "There are a lot of choices to eat around here, but not really late-night," he says. "I'm the only one doing tacos in Surfside, and there's no one doing Mexican food for around 30 blocks. With John's Tacos, I want to be the fast-casual, late-night person for Surfside."
John's Tacos is open Wednesday through Monday from 6 p.m. to midnight at 9517 Harding Ave. in Surfside.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.