From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: A Tale of Three Tacos

Photo By Jenneffer Pulapaka | Smoked Golden Tilefish Taco at Cress Restaurant

My comfort food is often rooted in simplicity, scratch cooking, humble ingredients, and bold flavor. The taco is as good a representation of those traits as any other. When I have the luxury of time, I visit local food stalls and usually gorge myself to discomfort.

At the taco stand, a time-honored individual makes the tortillas from scratch. Commodity meat cooked in spices and aromatics purchased at a big box farmers’ or specialty market, a few pieces of onion, chopped cilantro, a wedge of lime, and (unlimited) red and green sauces all amount to perhaps a combined prime (cost of goods and labor) cost of say, 25% of the menu price. When I serve tacos at my restaurant, I can’t possibly afford to offer them at $1.50 apiece, a common price at a taco stand. Usually, my average price is about $4 apiece.

At my restaurant, although I can easily make the tortillas myself, I don’t have the time. I may purchase a reasonable quality pre-made tortilla, use high-end proteins (for example house smoked local, fresh, sustainable fish or slow and low braised, compressed, roasted, overnight marinated heritage pork belly), make complex sauces and garnishes that I think distinguish the taco fitting it with the rest of our menu and style. In our case, the prime cost may be closer to 50%. Combine this with the cost of silverware, linen, ambiance, service, and it is easy to see how our tacos may have a lower profit margin than those from the taco stand. Mind you, myself, I would rather scarf down multiple tacos at the stand wiping my slobbery with cheap paper napkins and brushing aside critters who also want a piece of the soulful action. This, even though I think I can make a better tasting taco using elevated ingredients, techniques, and dare I say, depth of flavor.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but also, don’t compare apples to oranges.

This brings me to the point of this piece: Don’t judge a book by its cover, but also, don’t compare apples to oranges. My taco isn’t better than that of the taco stand nor is the taco stand’s version more affordable than mine. One could argue that the taco, by the very nature of its cultural history and significance is best enjoyed simply and modestly; without the pomp and circumstance of fussy plating, unconventional ingredients or cooking techniques, and most of all, at a price that may be higher than the daily wage of farm workers who help bring the dish the fruition. While I can relate with the uniquely satisfying experience of eating tacos at a taco stand, I would counter that dismissing a refined interpretation of the modest taco would require one to dismiss the same of burgers, pizzas, pastas, paellas, chowders, and just about most food.

Ultimately, the price of food is a function of the total cost of production, presentation, and everything in between. This includes the procurement of the chosen ingredients. If I was using commodity tilapia soaked in liquid smoke and marketing it as “peach wood smoked cherry snapper”, then shame on me and I would be the first to boycott my own restaurant.

Although restaurateurs have to make a living, consumers aren’t obligated to patronize a restaurant simply out of sensitivity to this reality. But the fact of the matter is that number of independent restaurants in the United States slipped 3% during 2016 with more and more customers choosing fast-food, delivery, or grab and go options. The taco stand and Cress Restaurant are both independent restaurants. Taco Bell on the other hand is not. At a menu price of $1.19 a taco made with even cheaper ingredients obtained through staggeringly influential purchasing power, the chain is best positioned to survive long after the taco stand or Cress will. Cress doesn’t specialize in tacos, but the taco stand does.

I plan on making tacos for dinner at home today, from scratch, and vegetarian. I suspect when it is all said and done, each taco will have a prime cost of about $2 apiece.