You have to be brave — and maybe even a little bit crazy — to open up a restaurant in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, but that’s what Ari Frangias and his partner Joe Chiarolanza did when he decided to launch Tiki Taco, a new fast-casual Mexican concept, in Brigantine.
“We settled on a deal and as soon as we were done signing the paperwork, the pandemic hit and everything was shut down. It was a rough start, but Joe and I have an incredible team behind us,” Frangias says.
Of course, this wasn’t a case of two newbies throwing their hats in the ring for the first time, both Frangias and Chiarolanza own other businesses, Frangias being the man behind the popular Galloway Township sports bar Tailgaters, and Chiarolanza owning the Ice Cream parlor Aunt B’s, which sits conveniently across the street from Tiki Taco.
Though he has run the show at Tailgaters for years, it helps being surrounded by years of experience in the restaurant business. Frangias’ father, George, owns Andros Diner in Newark where he worked as a boy, his father in law, Nick Exadaktilos, owns the Point Diner in Somers Point and his cousin, John, is the big cheese over at Ducktown Tavern in Atlantic City.
Tiki Taco fits in well in a beach town like Brigantine with its bamboo and ocean blue décor and Mexican flavors. Sure you might picture French Polynesia more than Mexico when you hear the word “tiki,” but somehow it works with the overall theme.
But how did a guy known for pub grub put together such a tasty Mexican menu?
“In the beginning I actually worked with a consultant in the kitchen named Michael Giamta,” Frangias explains. “I come from a background of diners and sports bars, so I had never really done a lot with salsas and things like that. But I had tasted his salsas because he lives across the street from me, and they were incredible. So when I decided to do Tiki Taco, he was one of my first calls.”
The setup at Tiki Taco is similar to a traditional modern fast casual restaurant such as Chipotle or Moe’s, with an employee assembling your food in front of you in real time as you pick and choose your vessels, proteins and toppings. But where Tiki Taco blows those places away is in the sheer number of options. One can select from either a burrito, rice bowl, quesadilla, salad or a trio of tacos, then pick from a list of proteins including steak, short rib, ground beef, chorizo, pork carnitas, grilled chicken, fish, shrimp or vegetables and finally top it all off with a list of toppings and sauces so long we can’t be bothered to print them all.
The highlights include outside-the-box options like tomatillo salsa, charred pineapple and their secret tiki sauce which is to die for. Of course, the standard toppings like shredded cheese, diced onions, corn salsa, sour cream, jalapenos and others are all up for grabs, too.
“We wanted it to be a quick in-and-out experience, but we didn’t want it to be like fast food as far as the quality or the flavors. For us, it’s all about the love that goes into the food. We don’t use cheap ingredients and everything comes in fresh. And that was what we wanted. We didn’t want to do greasy stuff like cheesesteaks and pizza, we wanted to do something clean.”
Whether you go light or heavy, you can mix and match flavor combos all day long, and if you opt for the tacos you can put together your own personal sampler. Side note — we don’t want to sound all judgy, but if you don’t try the spicy chorizo burrito with charred pineapple, diced onions, shredded cheese and tiki sauce, we may never understand why. Just sayin.’
Single tacos are also available for those looking for a small bite. Salads include a nice variety of dressing options, including Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette, tiki lime ranch, Italian and blue cheese.
But the fun doesn’t end there. Side dishes feature a variety of empanadas as well as guacamole, chips and queso and their signature Tiki Nachos — chips loaded up with your choice of protein and topped with beans, cheese jalapenos and sour cream.
Lovers of Mexican soda brand Jarritos will be pleased to find a wide variety of these fantastic beverages at Tiki Taco, in flavors like grapefruit, lime and mandarin, each in their signature pop-top glass bottles.
One thing to note — though you might be tempted to fill yourself to absolute capacity with any and all of the aforementioned dishes, you are going to need to save a little room at the end of your meal. Why? Because churros, that’s why.
Yup, Tiki Taco is frying up those delightful Mexican donuts and pairing them with chocolate and caramel sauces so you can dip until you pass out in a hazy bliss of cinnamon and sugar. A fitting ending to a casual Mexican feast.
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