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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Talking Tacos with Tartine Bakery's Cameron Wallace

Posted By on Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 12:29 PM

click to enlarge A birria de res taco from Loqui. - LIV COMBE
  • Liv Combe
  • A birria de res taco from Loqui.

Antojitos should be spicy. Antojitos should be eaten standing, served from an open kitchen where you interact with the chefs. Antojitos should never include chips and salsa. These are just a few of the guiding tenets at Loqui, the taco pop-up located in a space owned by Tartine Bakery. Every Friday and Saturday, Tartine baker Cameron Wallace turns out tacos--fish, birria de res, carnitas--on hand-made and made-to-order corn and flour tortillas, transforming the window between the bakery and Pizzeria Delfina on 18th Street into his own Little Mexico.

What's your background in cooking and baking, and how did you wind up at Tartine?

I grew up in San Diego. Culinarily speaking, that area influenced me because of its proximity to Mexico, and going to Mexico a lot as a kid influenced the memories I have of food. I got into restaurants in San Diego mainly because it was good nighttime work and I could surf during the day. All the best surfers worked at restaurants. So I got into it not so much because of the work but because of schedule. Then I realized I actually liked it, so [about 10 years ago] I moved to New York and went to culinary school.

It wasn't until then, once I left the region, that I realized how much I loved all the Mexican food I had grown up with and I had just sort of taken for granted. I took it upon myself to teach myself the things I liked to make--mainly so I could make it for myself and eat it while I was away. And it just sort of grew into something I loved more and more. I took a few research trips back to California and Mexico when I was living in New York. I kind of had this dream of starting a place in New York, but at the same time I was also doing a lot of pastry at restaurants and getting really interested in bread.

An old friend of mine from San Diego, Eric Wolfinger, got into baking here in San Francisco and ended up working at Tartine. When he left Tartine in 2010, he called me up and told me I should take his spot. And I knew if there was one place in the world I wanted to do bread, it was Tartine. So I came and did that. I started almost exactly four years ago.

How did the idea for the taco pop-up come about?

It was actually suggested to me by Chad [Robertson, co-owner of Tartine]. It was probably about two years ago that we started talking about it. He knew that I loved to cook tacos--I had made them for family meal a few times. At first he was like, "Why don't you do a dinner at Bar Tartine?" Bar Tartine used to be closed on Mondays, so they would let people do pop-ups there. I was like, "Yeah, that would be cool, but I don't know if it's the right vibe--it's just a little bit too nice of a restaurant, it kind of needs to be something a little more on the street." And he said, "Well, why don't you use the window?" And that was perfect.

What kind of vibe are you going for with Loqui?

I want to get an experience that's as close as possible to what I've seen in Mexico. And I think that one of the biggest traditional aspects of this food is the immediacy of it, the closeness you have to the food that's being prepared. It's a street stand; it's informal. I love it. At a lot of places in Mexico, you pay when you're done eating so you're always coming back for one more taco. We tried to get people to pay that way, but a lot of people aren't really comfortable with that. But it's what we try to do, even though it gets hard when it gets busy. We also like having little things for free--you see this a lot on Mexico, the salsas and radishes and chilies just out for people whenever they want them. So that's what I would say my goal is: to give people a bit more of that sort of authentic experience than you get at most places in the States.

And are many people coming?

Traffic has been really, really good. We see a lot of the same people every week, and then it's such a good location that we can also sort of rely on people just walking by. We just started Loqui in April of last year, and it was up and down a lot, initially. Over the summer it would be really hit or miss--there would be weekends where we'd get 100 people in a couple hours, and then there would be weekends where we'd get 30 peoples in four hours. But now it seems to be steadier, more of a rhythm to it.

Any plans to make changes or move to a different spot?

Not really. Not at this point. I really love the fact that we've gotten into a sort of rhythm. The first six months were crazy and every weekend was a new hurdle to be overcome; now, we actually know what we're doing and we can just put one foot in front of the other. We're going to keep going the way it is.

So what does Loqui mean, anyway?

It doesn't mean anything, really. It's a shortening for the Latin word loquitur, which I don't even really know what that means. It was just a name that sounded kind of cool; we came up with it and hadn't been used by anyone yet. It was literally a two-year process to think of a name. There was nothing we liked. We really liked the name Primo, but too many people already use it in case we want to make something with it in the future. We pronounce it "Loki," and we just thought it was kind of a catchy name.

click to enlarge Tartine baker Cameron Wallace behind the counter at his twice-weekly taco pop-up, Loqui. - LIV COMBE
  • Liv Combe
  • Tartine baker Cameron Wallace behind the counter at his twice-weekly taco pop-up, Loqui.

What are you favorite tacos to make?

I love making fish tacos, or anything that's grilled over a live fire. I use mesquite for grilling. It's fun. I love making tortillas too--that's one of my favorite parts, whether it's flour or corn. We do the flour by hand, ahead of time, and the corn is to order. It's a really satisfying process. It's really kind of like baking, in a sense, you're making the flour, cutting the dough, resting it, rolling it out and cooking it. The simplest parts of the prep are the most fun for me.

Swing by on Fridays and Saturday for handmade tacos. The menu changes weekly, but includes both meat and vegetarian options. Check Loqui's Twitter for weekly menu updates.

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Liv Combe

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