For all the horror stories we have heard about restaurants struggling to make ends meet in the COVID age, it’s nice to hear a success story every now and then. TacocaT in Margate is just that. But how they got there is a bit of a windy road.
The concept of TacocaT was born two years ago when owner Mike Talley was working as the manager of Ernest & Son over at The Exchange in Linwood and one of the other businesses in the food court suddenly vacated their space. Talley, a local boy from Brigantine who spent decades as a chef in the casinos, decided it was time to make a move.
“One of the spots at The Exchange became available, so my wife and I wondered, ‘what could go here?’ and then we thought, ‘tacos!’ and so we started to develop the brand. My daughter came up with the name and I worked on the menu. Within three months we had signed the lease and opened TacocaT,” says Mike Talley who owns the shop with his wife, Randi.
The buzz started quickly around South Jersey, and within months there was a new taco shop on every local foodie’s “must try” list. An appearance at A.C. Weekly’s Wing Wars won them a third Place trophy for Best Dipping Sauce, while simultaneously showing everyone that they were more than just a spot for great Mexican grub.
By the summer of 2020, they had opened up a second location just a block off the beach in Margate, and lines quickly began to stretch around the block. Before long it was clear that they had a winner on their hands. But balancing both locations was a bit tricky.
“Running both places last summer was a challenge, so we decided to sharpen our focus on Margate. It’s the best thing we ever did,” Talley says.
So in November, they closed up shop in Linwood and made Margate’s TacocaT their sole location. The Margate space comes with some key advantages for a restaurant trying to survive in a pandemic. It’s essentially a walk-up taco stand with a large covered space filled with picnic tables. Its laid-back beach vibe is right out of Southern California and brings to mind images of the kind of spots you might find at West Coast surf towns like Hermosa Beach.
The outdoor space is permanent and was already part of the property, so no tents or any special permits were needed. And with 100% of the seating being outside, it became an attractive spot for folks who might be gun-shy about eating indoors during the pandemic.
While the location and the setup are fantastic, at the end of the day it’s the food that keeps people coming back. The menu includes a laundry list of Cali-Mexican style street foods such as quesadillas, tacos, burritos and nachos – as well as a few less traditional apps and desserts.
Their Rum and Coke Wings make for an outside-the-box take on a chicken wing that is about as far from Buffalo as you can get, and the cheesesteak eggrolls have been so popular, the Talleys can hardly make them fast enough to keep them in stock.
“We make them fresh and roll them ourselves and initially we could not keep up. We had to figure out how to get these things made to satisfy the demand. But that’s a good problem to have, and we figured it out,” Randi Talley says.
Though they specialize in casual Cal-Mex food made quickly, TacocaT sets itself apart from spots like Chipotle and Moe’s in that it is not done assembly line-style. “The flavor profile has to be right on each dish,” Talley insists. This means that much thought goes into the menu, creating tastes that marry perfectly in your mouth and leave the guesswork out of it. The steak taco is prepared with citrus-marinated skirt steak, chimichurri salsa, pickled onions, lime crema and cotija cheese and can be served on either a flour or corn tortilla, or a lettuce cup for those trying to cut the carbs. The pork al pastor variety is made with marinated and grilled pork, charred pineapple, salsa verde and red onion.
Of course the seaside atmosphere at TacocaT means lots of fresh local seafood finds its way onto the menu. The Angry Shrimp Taco is an enchanting combination of bold flavors, pairing grilled marinated shrimp with spicy chorizo, roasted corn salsa, avocado crema and cojita cheese; as is the Blackened Mahi Fat Cat Burrito, a tasty specimen packed with Spanish rice, black beans, Mexican street corn, cheddar and jack cheese and pico de gallo.
But perhaps the tastiest, healthiest and most surprising option is the Brussels sprouts taco, which is literally bursting with flavor and crave-ability despite the lack of any meat whatsoever. Crispy Brussels sprouts blended with flash-fried roasted shishito peppers, Cholula honey hot sauce, pepitas and topped with chipotle crema — if you can only get one item at TacocaT, this should be it.
A lineup of quesadilla options feature everything from a basic cheese variety to shrimp, pork, chicken, steak and ground beef, all served with salsa and sour cream. Optional sides include Mexican street corn, Spanish rice or black beans.
The dessert list is short, but sweet (literally). And one does not need many options when churros are up for grabs. Available individually or in sundae form with vanilla or chocolate ice cream, dulce de leche, chocolate sauce and whipped cream, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a tastier or more satisfying way to end a meal.