Story by Adrian Brijbassi
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Serendipity is one word that comes to mind when you think about the story of Tacofino. The restaurant brand that started as a modest food truck operation in Tofino has flourished into a dominating presence in British Columbia. On Friday night, it debuted its newest endeavour, the airy 3,000-square-foot Taco Bar, an 80-seat restaurant with a 20-seat outdoor patio that faces Blood Alley in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district.
If not for a series of decisions that were shrewd and fortunate, the restaurant may not even exist. Tacofino founder and avid surfer Jason Sussman and his wife, Kaeli Robinsong, were looking for a vehicle for a road trip and ended up entering the food-truck industry. They’ve been riding a wave of success since.
“We were looking for a ride to get down to Mexico. We had no intention of going into the food-truck business,” Sussman says.
Until he and Robinsong saw an affordable 30-year-old food catering truck that was used for feeding film crews in Vancouver. They bought it, drove it to Mexico and then back to British Columbia, settling in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Sussman and Robinsong painted the truck orange and sought to open a business that served burgers and fries from the vehicle.
“But the parking lot where we were going to operate out of was across from a restaurant that served burgers and fries,” Sussman says, “so we decided to do tacos.”
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In Mexico, Sussman noticed how often surfers would congregate around the street vendors who served baja fish tacos. He figured the concept would work in Tofino because of its surf culture — and he was right. Tacofino found loyal customers early on. It was also lucky. Soon after its debut in 2009, the food-truck craze took off as the economic recession forced restaurateurs to find inventive and less costly ways of doing business, while diners sought to pay less for meals and mobile technology allowed food trucks to move about to where they were most likely to be found by consumers. Food trucks became a novelty and a hot topic. So, too did tacos. They were becoming a favourite food on Canada’s west coast, challenging sushi and pizza as a go-to choice for those seeking a quick bite.
Tacofino emerged as the right brand at the right time. Sussman and Robinsong’s spontaneous purchase became a beloved piece of the community, so much so that it attracted two investors who couldn’t get enough of the flavours. The Tacofino founders partnered with Ryan Spong and Matt MacIsaac to expand. Food trucks opened in Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna, and a restaurant, Commissary, started in 2012 in East Vancouver.
Now, a brick-and-mortar version arrives in the city’s downtown, with a take-out spot, Burrito Bar, on West Cordova Street, and the attached Taco Bar serving sit-down meals in a well-conceived setting that evokes the sophisticated side of the southwest. The space was completely renovated since the owners took possession 11 months ago. Plans include a rooftop patio, which will require a licence that will take at least six months to obtain.
What makes Tacofino special is its commitment to the identity it carved out in Canada’s most famous surf town. It remains laid back but also community-minded, with numerous efforts planned to support the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood where Taco Bar resides. The owners also get along well with Shoel Davidson, the co-owner of Gringo, a fun 391-square-foot taco joint across the street in Blood Alley. Davidson complimented the Tacofino initiative for its ambition and suggested a renaming of Blood Alley — a monicker that dates to the strip’s early days as a location for butchers and more recently associated with the drug culture in the area. His suggestion: Taco Alley.
If Gringo is the place you go for cheap drinks and sustenance at 2 am, Taco Bar is where you arrive for share plates amid dim lights early in the evening, before the night goes astray at one of Gastown’s clubs or party spots. The Taco Bar’s menu is also a slight departure from Tacofino’s Commissary. Dishes that Sussman is excited to serve include Oaxacan corn fritters ($6) and a delicious beef rib, glazed with a habanero sauce and served with chilaquiles ($20). Like a few of Tacofino’s dishes, the beef rib shows Sussman’s experience with and affection for Asian cuisine. He has cooked on that continent and brings a touch of its flavours to Tacofino.
The ingredients for the dishes are also carefully sourced. The batter for the tacos ($6-$7) is prepared in Toronto from a recipe only Tacofino owns and which took many attempts to perfect. The fish tacos are made from Alaskan cod. The beef and lamb come from farms in the Greater Vancouver Area that service many of the region’s fine restaurants.
While Sussman says he never imagined the brand growing beyond Tofino, the success of Tacofino indicates that Taco Bar is only the latest creation, not its last. MacIsaac and Spong told me earlier this year that they hope to expand to Toronto and possibly other locations in Canada. All of that from a food truck with a modest goal to feed surfers. Tacofino certainly appears to have caught a big wave and is ripping through it.
MORE ABOUT TACOFINO’S TACO BAR AND BURRITO BAR
Location: The restaurants share the same space with the Burrito Bar entrance at 15 West Cordova Street and Taco Bar in Blood Alley.
Daily Hours: Taco Bar, 5 pm to midnight, daily; Burrito Bar, 11 am to midnight.
Menu Price Range: $6-$20 at Taco Bar; burritos at Burrito Bar are $10-$11.
You Must Order: Taco Bar’s glazed beef rib with chilaquiles ($20) is wonderful, with a delicate habanero spice.
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