Rebecca Shumway ©2020

The Secret Sauce(s) of Tacos & Tattoos

Business Profile

A hideaway restaurant in the suburbs of Kendall in Miami, Florida has incredible street cred.

Jonathan Cruz, or Jay, is walking around the tables greeting guests, disarming them with kindness. He has recruited kindred spirits to staff his first restaurant, Tacos & Tattoos. Perhaps this is how after only one-and-a-half years, Tacos & Tattoos has 597 Yelp reviews with an average review of 4.5 stars. As any Yelper will tell you, this is cause for a churrasco-taco-and-craft-beer celebration.

He’s never paid for advertising. He’s never purchased a Google ad. The restaurant’s initial digital presence was limited to Instagram as @tacostattoos, where he posted the latest food creations and events. It’s filled with behind-the-scenes, taproom takeovers and #dogsoftacostattoos. They have since acquired a website and Facebook page.

“I like that our customers find out about us from mostly word-of-mouth. It’s more organic.”

Tacos & Tattoos is a break from the traditional Mexican approach to tacos: It is New American-Latin fusion. Tacos have several protein choices: churrasco, buffalo chicken, shrimp, chicken, pork belly, carnitas, ground beef, portabella mushroom and tofu. Most dishes have Caribbean-influenced seasonings, spicy red cabbage and are topped with a smattering of a mysterious, delightful sauce. There is also a vast craft beer selection.

“We represent 35 breweries,” says Cruz.

Another menu highlight: Crispy Patacón. This dish features fried patties of green plantains topped with pico de gallo, shredded cabbage and a choice of protein drizzled with a paired in-house sauce. For sheer indulgence, request a layer of fried queso frito.

“I love the burrito with churrasco and the green sauce,” says Heidi Bernard, sitting at a table with two of her friends.

“I’ve tried everything, but I always go back to the churrasco tacos,” adds Devona Wu.

“ — And the California Love Fries too,” chimes in Alex Trejos. “I went vegan for, like, 2.5 days, and they made me something special for that and it was good too. I almost stayed vegan, but that didn’t happen,

so then I went back to churrasco tacos.”

“When you don’t have them — if you miss a week — you crave them,” says Bernard.

“Now I won’t order a taco anywhere else because it’s kind of sad,” says Trejos.

“Yes, I told them they need to bottle the sauce,” says Wu. All heads nod in unison.

Cruz started working tables after dropping out of high school. He took notes from both sides of the table.

“I’ve worked at a five-star restaurant for a bit,” the 24-year-old restaurant owner says. “I’ve also paid $100 for mediocre service. Rather than making a big deal about it, I took notes for how I can make my own restaurant’s experience better.”

That’s one reason why he has his personal phone number written on the chalkboard hanging above the bar — a marvel few restaurant owners dare. His text messages show several texts from random numbers. He has responded to all fan texts and complaints with

a thoughtful text, signed “~jonathan.”

“I only get about five texts a day,” Cruz says. “Most of them are fans, but the complaints I try to fix right away.”

The new-and-improved Tacos & Tattoos, still inside Sable Chase Tacos & Tattoos’ first location was inside a small storefront in a shopping center in the quiet Kendall community, Sable Chase. Four months ago, they moved into a larger space two doors down. The other adjacent small businesses include a dry cleaner, a hair salon and a convenience store.

Few outsiders explored the labyrinth roads of this community until Tacos & Tattoos arrived. It was a haunt for born-and-raised Kendall folks who frequented the convenience store for a Slim Jim and beer wrapped in a brown paper bag. Events like Bicycle Night on Taco Tuesday made this restaurant explode. People tailgated because there wasn’t enough indoor seating.

“I’m definitely inspired by the idea that this place is something uncommon that benefits the community — something to talk about, something to look forward to,” says Cruz.

What’s the secret? Tacos & Tattoos strikes a balance between edgy and family-friendly. The dim lighting, downtempo electronica and tattoo-inspired artwork make it a fail-safe hangout spot for youth. The servers’ friendly demeanor encourages guests to let their guard down with their family. Clientele ranges from a rambunctious group

of friends, a silent couple bonding over tacos to a chatty BFFL trio.

“We cater to anyone who can chew a taco. This is a people’s restaurant. This is not a demographic restaurant,” says Cruz.

Starting a restaurant, especially in a suburban neighborhood, is a risky venture. Cruz’s parents realized this when he approached them for start-up funding. They listed concerns: What were the legal considerations? Zoning regulations? Food safety certifications?

“I believe that you can find the answers just by asking the right questions,” Cruz explains.

He compiled his research into a binder a few inches thick. His parents were impressed. They fronted the money. Together with his older brother, the four of them launched the restaurant.

What would he name the place? Tacos & Tattoos. The name intrigues many inquisitive customers, who expect to see a gnarly dude tattooing guests as they eat tacos. Alas, no such arrangement exists, although several artists ink up the walls, from @baghead, @marlonpruz to @upperhandart.

So why include “tattoos” in the name? Cruz first pitched the concept in a tattoo shop while getting inked.

“It grew into the idea of opening a food truck in front of the tattoo shop and calling it Tacos & Tattoos since the tattoos would have been right behind us,” explains Jonathan. “Exploring all the options, we ran into a problem where we couldn’t park the truck because of square footage on the property. So instead of us going through with the truck and finding a new location, we decided we’d open up a restaurant and change the name.”

After brainstorming several name ideas, nothing resonated like Tacos & Tattoos.

“It was cool because it sounded like something dynamite, something that would blow up, you know? T&T.”

The name stuck.

With his father’s influence, prior restaurant experience and advice from mentors, Cruz had a short learning curve.

His father refined his foodie sensibilities at an early age: “He never had breakfast ready for me. I would cook it with him.”

He had been observant as a server, generating ideas that were often implemented. The executive chef of Burger and Beer Joint, Carlos Barillas, offered vision and guidance in the early stages.

Still, there were aspects of restaurant operations Cruz learned on the fly. What would be his management style? He prefers to ask, not command; to lead from the front, not decree orders from behind.

“I don’t get paid any more than our top-paid here, so I never feel that I’m over them or under them. I feel like that’s pretty fair. When it comes down for me to say something, I say it from the people’s angle rather than giving them an upper view and not really putting in the work myself. We’re sharing the same page here — everyone’s got to put forth their equal amount of effort.”

This approach works well with his staff, both in the front and the back of the house, as they say in the restaurant biz.

“I’ve worked at multiple restaurants, but this is by far one of my favorites,” says line cook Carolina Reynoso, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate. “It’s just like a big family, so it’s very welcoming from the start. You want to do good for them.”

The staff, in turn, welcome the customers as family.

“We like to think of it as an extension of our home,” says Andrew Henao, who has worked at Tacos & Tattoos since two months after it opened. He’s been friends with Cruz since they met at Arvida Middle School. “We want you to feel like you’re invited to a family bar-be-que.”

This keeps customers loyally coming back.

“I go there for lunch,” says Sheena Hodgson, who works nearby. “Every time I walk in, they always give me a hug.”

What’s next on the radar? Cruz is working on plans to open two new locations: Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. But for now, he’s enjoying building up the restaurant in his native Kendall.

“A lot of people that know me, that grew up with me in Kendall, are really proud of me because I’m still here.”

For the upcoming taco-infused holiday, Cinco de Mayo, Tacos & Tattoos will temporarily re-open the original storefront down the strip as a take-out location for the anticipated crowds.

Tip? If you’re having a difficult time narrowing down your options on the menu, “Order with your eyes closed. You won’t regret it,” writes Foursquare user, Mr Blue.

Written while enrolled in Writing Strategies in the creative advertising program in the School of Communications + Journalism at Florida International University.