It was more than a year ago when Short Order announced the team behind Haven would open a fast-casual taco shop called Huahua's on Lincoln Road. The expected opening date: late May or early June at the latest. Of course, back then, Todd Erickson meant June 2012.
Erickson explains that his team encountered a few setbacks with permitting and some issues with the grease traps. "There's always a surprise. It's been taxing because the way the buildout works is that there are so many things that have to fall in line in absolute order. If one part falls through, you have to reschedule every other contractor and do it all again. So it's constant logistics. It's just a challenge."
Flash forward to 2013, and Huahua's Taqueria is really, truly opening soon. The restaurant is fully operational, save for a few middling touches. For instance, when we walked into the little restaurant a few days ago, brown butcher paper was still covering the windows, the cooler that houses the Mexican beer and Jarritos needed an infusion of Freon, and the margarita machine was just getting new signage. Even the menu was still being tweaked.
Erickson and co-owner Mike Boles invited us to "test-drive" a few items that needed a second opinion. Before the cooking commenced, Erickson walked us through the restaurant. Dark wood, repurposed from a barn in Pennsylvania, lines the walls. Cactus plants sit on a group of shelves. Mexican jumping beans rattle in their little plastic boxes, and a chalkboard waits for the daily specials to be scrawled. Erickson explains there will be a "blue basket" special, maybe a special fish, and perhaps an "offal Monday" taco.
The chef's tour is thorough as he takes us through the brand-new kitchen, where a large pot of queso is cooking, and all the way to the bathroom, where he shows us the most awesome Chihuahua Day of the Dead prints on the walls.
The Chihuahua is Huahua's mascot. The restaurant is named for Boles' little dog, Jalapeña. Boles takes out his phone and pulls up pictures of the tiny gray creature, who bears a striking resemblance to the cartoon mascot, a blue Chi with long eyelashes and a sombrero.
The restaurant will be dog-friendly, down to a "canine oasis" -- a custom stainless-steel tower of doggie bowls of various sizes and heights to accommodate the teeniest toy to the largest beast -- and complimentary doggie biscuits. Patrons will also find Huahua's hospitable with powerful Wi-Fi and a cell-phone charging stand so you can feed your iPhone while you feed your face. The idea is to take your dog, your friends, and your phone to grab a taco and a beer. Huahua's wants to become the new neighborhood hangout.
The menu, which consists of tacos, enchiladas, salads, and sides, varies from traditional to whimsical. Tacos range from traditional al pastor to fried chicken topped with jalapeño cornbread. Erickson, known for fusing various global influences at the Lincoln Road gastrolounge Haven, explains his thought process behind the tacos. "We're all good Southern boys. So the fried chicken was kind of a nod to our being from down South and loving fried chicken. But some of the best tacos I've ever had in Texas were served on a card table in front of a Latin grocery store from a Crock-Pot served by an old lady just slapping the meat into a tortilla. Superfresh, simple flavors, but they really left an impact on me as far as the flavors. So I wanted to incorporate both concepts in my menu."
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Erickson admits that although it was never in his "five-year plan" to open a fast-casual restaurant, the journey has been fun. "It's just been really cool working on the branding and the concept. We have a very open kitchen here, so the back and the front of the house have really merged."
Though Huahua's isn't yet open, the management team has its eyes on the horizon. The Huahua's website lists Boles' email address for potential investors to contact him. Asked whether there are plans to franchise in the future, Erickson quips, "Call us." He then becomes sincere. "Mike and I have talked about this not being our only concept. Mike really excels at design and the big picture. And I always try to live up to the concept with the menus and the kitchen. It's a great partnership."
But before the future beckons, the flagship must open. Asked what he wants people to know about Huahua's, Erickson says, "We are here to bring a mix of traditional and playful tacos. There's cactus on the walls, there's beaten-up wood. It's slick and it's comfortable. I just can't wait to tear the paper off the windows and open the front door."