Richard Hales is opening a third restaurant concept. This time, however, the chef is straying from the Asian influences that have brought him much success with Sakaya Kitchen and Blackbrick.
Centro Taco will open this summer in the former Sakaya Kitchen downtown location at 125 SE Third Ave. Sakaya's downtown spot has already closed in anticipation of the remodel. Sakaya Kitchen's original midtown location remains open, and Hales is looking to open another Sakaya outpost in the near future.
If you think Hales is capitalizing on Miami's tacomania, think again. The chef confides that long before Sakaya Kitchen was a thought, his intention was to open a taco restaurant. "I was living in New York in the 2000s, and I went to this taqueria called La Esquina, where you walked through the kitchen and down into the cellar to get to the restaurant. I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and the thought of opening a taco restaurant stuck with me."
Inspired by his Manhattan experience, Hales said he originally planned to open a taco restaurant on North Miami Avenue called Bodegas years ago, but when the deal fell through, he leased a space in midtown. "I found this great spot, but the leasing office said that another taco place was moving in, so my restaurant ultimately became Sakaya Kitchen."
Now Hales says the timing is right to revive his original concept of a taqueria with the chef's own unique takes on authentic Mexican cuisine. "There's a big difference between Tex-Mex cuisine and the food of Mexico. I'm interested in the flavors of Mexico. Not that I'm going to be restricted by what's considered proper, but the cuisine will give me a guide, much like what I'm doing at Blackbrick."
Centro Taco will offer sit-down service. "It's not fast-casual. It's not a counter-service place. I'm less interested in quick meals and more interested in opening a real restaurant and exploring techniques."
Hales says tacos are one of his favorite foods. "I love anything that I can eat with my hands or out of a bowl with a spoon. I can go to a Michelin-starred restaurant and be a perfect gentleman, but when you cook, you mostly eat with a spoon. It used to drive my mom nuts."
Hales is still conceptualizing the menu, but some test tacos he's working on include a vegan version with avocado, hemp seed, and huitlacoche; a carne asada variety with powdered grasshopper and poblano; a taco with Proper Sausages, arbol pepper paste, and cojita cheese; a version with schmaltz, brined onion, and chicken skin; one with griots, pikliz, and cebolitas; and a roti taco stuffed with salt-and-pepper squid with cilantro aioli. Tacos will cost about $3.50 to $5 each.
In addition to tacos, there will be queso flameado — melted Oaxaca cheese served hot in cast-iron pans; topped with braised meats, local greens, or grilled seafood; and served with hot, fresh tortillas. In addition, Hales plans a crudo bar, a revolving oyster dish, and vegan offerings. He will also have a burger — billed as a side dish. "I've got to put a cheeseburger on the menu. I just have to." He'll make salsas and corn tortillas in house too.
The restaurant will serve a weeknight family meal consisting of one shared protein — like a whole roast chicken, a whole fish, or Peking duck — along with salsas and tortillas. "The idea is that you tear into the meat and make your own tacos." The family meal serves two to four people; the price depends upon the featured protein but will be well under $20 per person.
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The chef says the global influences all around Miami are portrayed in his food. "This is the type of cuisine I'm really interested in. If it influences me and tastes good, why not? Some people would give me a laundry list of 'why not?' but I've never been bound by being authentic."
Centro Taco will offer about 35 beers, including about a half-dozen on tap, as well as Mexican wines and sodas. The restaurant is expected to open in the next few months, no later than July 1. Hales will include updates on his latest project on his @ChefHales Twitter account.
Hales says this is the right time and the right place for Centro Taco. "I'm excited about the challenge in a part of town I want to help grow."