Kevin Morrison is the chef/owner behind Denver's wildly popular Pinche Taqueria, and as the name implies, most of Denver would agree that Morrison's tacos are fucking delicious. The taqueria was recently named one of the "Top Best New Restaurants" by Bon Appétit, but Morrison's tacos have lured the crowds since he launched his taco wagon in 2010. It's been less than a year since Morrison opened a brick and mortar, and he's already getting ready to open another one in Highlands this winter. Eater popped by the taqueria to get the scoop on Morrison's new project, and he also shared his reaction to the nod from Bon Appétit. Let's just say they were very sneaky...
When did you realize Bon Appétit selected Pinche Taqueria for its 50 Best Restaurants list? The day I saw it online. I think a guest a told me about it — I didn't even know. They [BA] had contacted me about an interview for an article about what chefs like to eat when they're not working. They never mentioned anything about the list, they just said they were working on an article — said "you may or may not make the press." I did this dish that my wife and I shared on our honeymoon and recreated it at home. We got married in the Bahamas and had this sea bass on the grill that was just so simple and incredible — it was just fresh fish rubbed with fresh chilies and oil, seared on a hot grill and served with rice and beans. We eat it all the time — but they never mentioned anything about the list, so I was pretty shocked. Way shocked.
Have you noticed an influx of people since the ranking? Are you still getting people in who have never heard of this place? Oh yea. I think most people probably don't know about Pinche Tacos — where we are and what we're about, which is good. We've been busy though, so hopefully that will maintain.
Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton commended the tequila selection you have. The name of the restaurant on the building reads: "Tacos, Taquila, Whiskey" — why whiskey? I didn't just want tacos and tequila — I like whiskey. I think it's a great canvas for making a lot of different cocktails. It had a nice flow to it too — Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey. I hadn't been in the bar business, so I brought my friend Johnny Ballen on broad (pre Squeaky Bean rebirth) and he took the helm of the bar program.
Speaking of the name that reads on the building... it's not Pinche Taqueria. Can you divulge about the evolution of the name? (laughs) Well, the evolution goes something like this: My brother-in-law and his girlfriend were at our house and we were making tacos, and it was actually the lengua (tongue) taco that started the conversation. I was explaining that as a chef, you go into this whole dramatic affair about how you create a dish, and where the inspiration came from, blah-blah-blah — it bores people to death. So I was telling them about how I had made this taco, and we had a few shots of tequila that night, and at one point my wife said, "Just give me that fucking taco!" And I was like, "That's it! That's the name!" So I started researching the name, found there was a Pinche Taqueria in New York City and that there's Pinche's Tacos in LA. So I called my attorney, told him that was the name I wanted, and he researched it — blah-blah-blah, and here we are.
And it wasn't an issue? It was no big deal, as long as we didn't serve alcohol. The liquor board has an ethics and morals clause that doesn't allow certain things [like "fucking"] in the name, so they gave us 12 hours to change it. So on paper the name is "Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey," but the name of our company is Pinche Taqueria.
There's always a flood of people in here. Is it insane every night? It is busy every night. The longest wait we've had is two hours, and people stay. But we try to make it fun and enticing for them to stay. People do stay — it's pretty awesome.
What's the brunch service like? Brunch is awesome. It's steady all day. We've had brunch since day one, but after the first month I tweaked the menu. We were doing more entrée -sized platters, and then we got a request for tacos a la carte. I designed the menu, unfortunately, after I designed the kitchen. The kitchen wasn't really suitable for the menu I designed, so we pulled our hair out for about a month — tripped over each other, burned each other, cussed at each other — and then I was just like, "fuck it," and went back to all tacos. The day we went back to all tacos, out of dumb luck, was our busiest brunch. It was smooth.
So these epic lines you have at the restaurant and at the truck — did you foresee that happening? Was there an "oh shit" moment for you? Lots of "oh shit" moments. I think of the Justice League events, where we'll have over an hour and a half wait, and people will order one or two tacos. It's crazy! I'm glad they do it, and I appreciate it, but wow, that's crazy. I think the busiest night we've had at the Justice League involved a line from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., when it closed. That night we made over 2,000 tacos. Those events are fun because people are outside, drinking and having a great time. The whole atmosphere is about grazing and trying everything. When we're at the Justice League, all the guys in the kitchen will have a beer break — slam a quick beer and do a shot, look at the line and say, "Oh god..." Then we just put our heads down. Just keep making tacos.
Obviously, Pinche Taqueria has been wildly successful. Did you think your little taco truck would blow up like this? When I opened the taco truck, I went in knowing I wanted to own a restaurant, but I wanted to test the market. I didn't want to invest a lot of money. The taco wagon just took off. Going into the second year of business, we got the best food truck award from Westword, so that was cool. It just started snowballing from there. When we found this location, my wife and I just knew it was the spot. It was a total dive — walls were falling down, ceiling were falling down, holes were in the floor — we were just like, "This is it!" It was funky, cool and rustic — exactly what we wanted. When we opened, I had a goal: I wanted to be thought of, and nominated, as one of the top restaurants in Denver. So to get nominated as one of the top 50 in the country, that was way over our exceptions. It's a nice surprise.
You're opening another taqueria at 3300 W. 32nd Ave. — how'd you find that location? I think it came on our radar mid-May. It was a Sunday night and I was going to Sullivan's Steakhouse for a graduation dinner for my niece, and I got and email from a landlord about the property. We hooked up that next Monday to check out the property and loved it. It just felt like a good fit, and we signed the lease about a month ago. I just had a three hour meeting with my design team — aka, my wife Nancy, who's a finance person by trade with a crazy creative side — and the design will be very similar. We're going to incorporate some different textures in the new space with more iron, beams and metals. It will be a little more open and airy. The kitchen will definitely be more open, and we'll have barstools around it so people can see what's going on and take shots with the taco-makers.
Kind of like a sushi counter. Right. We also do this thing called "ladles," and it's usually on Friday and Saturday nights. Whenever we clear the tickets, we'll get a third pan full of beer and everyone grabs a ladle to chug it. It's a tradition — we do it every weekend. The guests get a kick out of seeing it. I'm not a beer guy, so I grab a 2 oz. ladle, but some of the guys grab the 8oz. ladle.
When will the second taqueria open? We're shooting for January of 2013. We're in the liquor license process now and the architect should finish the drawings by the end of August. We'll submit to the constructors for bids and our plans into the city for their comments, and hopefully start swinging hammers in October.
· All Pinche Taqueria Coverage [-EDen-]
Kevin Morrison [Photo: Meredith Moran]