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Monday, August 9, 2010

The Taco Guys: Longtime Line Cooks Take Fine-Dining Chops Mobile

Posted By on Mon, Aug 9, 2010 at 5:07 PM

click to enlarge The Taco Guys: Justin Close (left) and Jason Hoffman. - THE TACO GUYS/FACEBOOK
  • The Taco Guys/Facebook
  • The Taco Guys: Justin Close (left) and Jason Hoffman.
This may be San Francisco's Summer of Truck, sure. But 2010 has seen the birth of another street trend: The restaurant chef gone mobile.

This Friday at Off the Grid, San Francisco will get a taste of the newest restaurant vets to fit out a truck, the Taco Guys. Jason Hoffman and Justin Close rolled out last April in Marin. Hoffman, 39, grew up in the Mission; he's been cooking professionally, he says, since before he could legally drive, a dozen of those years with Close.

click to enlarge The Taco Guys' Off the Grid debut is Aug. 13 at Fort Mason Center. - THE TACO GUYS/FACEBOOK
  • The Taco Guys/Facebook
  • The Taco Guys' Off the Grid debut is Aug. 13 at Fort Mason Center.
They met when both worked at the Waterfront under Bruce Hill, later racking up kitchen time at Azie, Scott Howard, and La Folie, among other places.

Hoffman says that last year, he and Close looked at each other and asked, What next? "We didn't really want to work at another restaurant," Hoffman says. By October, the idea of mobile catering seemed inescapable. In February, they scored a truck. But while both had worked under a range of culinary influences, Hoffman says the idea of doing authentic Mexican tacos took them outside their comfort zone. "It didn't come naturally to us," Hoffman says. So they said, basically, screw it.

"What we know is French technique, Asian technique, North African technique," Hoffman says. "Then we found out about the Kogi guys. These guys are actually doing Korean BBQ tacos, so we thought, Why don't we just do our thing, which is using Asian technique, and Moroccan, or Burmese, or Indian technique, and just use a tortilla as a vehicle for fine dining? It literally was an epiphany. It was all at once, like, Hey, let's play to our strengths."

click to enlarge Shrimp taco from the Taco Guys. - THE TACO GUYS/FACEBOOK
  • The Taco Guys/Facebook
  • Shrimp taco from the Taco Guys.
Blend that epiphany with seven-year-old memories of a Maui beachside taco truck called Jaws, and the Taco Guys were born. Though the Maui taco (panko-battered rockfish, shredded Little Gems, Sriracha mayo, pickled red onion) the rest of the menu changes often, in true Cali bistro style. Might be tacos with Burmese braised lamb, harissa-braised tongue, or Thai lamb. Last week's menu included an achiote-and-chipotle-braised Kurobuta pork shoulder, and a beef mole taco with jicama-apple slaw and pickled onions. Last week's vegetarian offering was pan-roasted mushrooms and organic peppers with nopales salsa and queso cotija.

"We try to stay away from the standard stuff," says Hoffman. "We have no interest in standard Mexican food at all."

The Taco Guys mostly alternate between lunches in downtown San Rafael and late nights and happy hours in the East Bay. Though, says Hoffman, they're close to the top of the list for new vendors at the Sunday Stonestown farmers' market. And they'll part at Eat Real later this month. Check the Taco Guys' tweets for location updates.

As for adjusting to life on the road, Hoffman says he and Close don't miss restaurant world. "We've gotten a little bit of envy from some of our chef buddies," he says. "They love the idea of the sense of adventure that comes form traveling." Are Hoffman and Close worried their long-honed chefs' chops will get dull on the road?

"I don't think we've lost anything, even though were not making foie gras torchon," he says. "We take our tacos as seriously as a $30 plate of lobster."

The Taco Guys: Various locations in Marin, the East Bay, and S.F.; check Twitter for updates.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Contact me at John.Birdsall@SFWeekly.com

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