Now playing: the Señor Taco Show
August 6, 2013
CARBONDALE — When the curtains come up on the stage at the Señor Taco Show, you see a family — and a family business — that inhabits many worlds.
They are Mexicans and Americans, half born here, half in Mexico. They are old and young: Manuel is the youngest at 21, and his father Francisco is 65. Their restaurant (46 N. Fourth St. in Carbondale) is at once deeply traditional and surprisingly hip. It serves country style dishes in the tradition of rural Mexico, with a hipster twist: the mascot is a mustache.
Of course, there are no curtains, and there is no stage — there is only the Curiel family. There are six of them, and they've run the Taco Show together since they opened it, together, on March 15.
Francisco, the patriarch, is head chef and visionary. Marylu (she's in her 50s, but wouldn't give her precise age) serves food and handles the register. She also functions as a sort of external hard drive for Francisco's memory. In her spare time she works as a hostess at an Aspen hotel and as a teacher at Colorado Mountain College.
Marisol, 27, and Fatima, 23, are both artists: their paintings hang on the restaurant's walls. Dessire, 25, is an artist, too: she drew the mustache that inspired the restaurant's logo, and it seems likely that she was inspired by the mustache on her father's face.
Emmanuel, 21, is Francisco's right-hand man and protégé: He cooks, he cleans, and he handles the ordering.
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Francisco and Marylu met in Guadalajara, Mexico, but they've been in the U.S. since the mid-1980s. Aside from the Curiels' own trans-border heritage, Francisco sees the restaurant itself as a sort of cultural bridge: Although his family is entirely Hispanic, about 90 percent of Señor Taco Show customers are Anglos.
"We think we're in the right place to get these two cultures together," Francisco said. "We are neighbors, but there's still separation. Latinos don't need to be afraid to mix with Anglo people."
The restaurant's menu — tacos, quesadillas, guacamole, ceviche — was inspired by the food that Francisco grew up cooking and eating in the mountains of western central Mexico.
"Growing up, we had produce, milk, cheese, beef and eggs right there in the country," he said. "At the restaurant, we don't do small chopped, tiny gourmet dishes; we cook very simply, without a lot of spices that upset your stomach.
"We're cooking pretty much what we have cooked at home for 25 years," said Marylu.
Francisco said he'd eventually like for the Señor Taco menu to feature one dish from every state in Mexico (there are 31), and he's off to a strong start: The birria taco, a slow roasted, marinated pork affair, is a common dish in Jalisco state, where it's often done with goat that's cooked with cinnamon, chocolate and other spices overnight.
The restaurant serves mole, a traditional Mexican sauce that has its origins in Puebla and Oaxaca, along with carnitas that are popular in Michoacán. Dishes from seaside states like Nayarit and Jalisco inspire the shrimp tacos and ceviche on the menu, while lengua (cow tongue) tacos are popular in Mexico City and Hidalgo.
From his own region in the mountains near Puerto Vallarta, Francisco prepares a Sierra Madre soup: beans, chopped carne asada, melted cheese salsa and avocado.
Among regular clientele, the Taco Show has also become known for a line of salsas that combine fruits like orange, tangerine, lime and mango with scorching hot peppers like habañero or bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), which is among the world's hottest.
For the Curiels, opening Señor Taco Show has been a long-term project. Marylu said they searched for a location for three years, and once they found one it took them 15 months to open.
No one in the restaurant is formally trained as a chef, although Francisco worked at Aspen's Main Street Bakery, Carnevale, the Snowmass Club, the Ritz Carlton and the St. Regis before setting out to open his own restaurant. He's also been a painter, a landscaper and a car detailer.
For now, the restaurant subsists on little more than what it makes from day to day.
"We don't have a lot of capital," said Francisco. "We opened three months ago, and we've kept going on what we've made since then."
Yet the family has big dreams: The "show" in the restaurant's name stems from Francisco's desire to eventually launch a catering outfit that features Mexican folkloric dancers, and to begin showing documentaries about Mexican culture and folklore on the restaurant's TV.
He also has a vision of mustaches dotting the American landscape.
"I want to make this a franchise, that's my dream," he said. "This could be a good business for families to invest in together."