I don't envy the work the Haven Gastropub wunderkinds—Greg Daniels, Wil Dee and Alkesh Patel—have ahead of them. They're planning a second outpost in Pasadena; at the Camp, their latest project, Taco Asylum, enjoys the adoration of the Haven faithful as well as attention from those curious about its novelty. But after the been-there-done-that crowd dissipates, after the magazines and newspapers stop talking about them, they'll need staying power. They'll need to convince the rest of the world to look past their $5-per-taco price tag. And if the opinions of a few people I've unscientifically surveyed are any indication, it's going to be an uphill battle once the honeymoon is over. A typical summation of the place was “Well, it's good, but it's a $5 taco.”
It's not just the friends I asked. When every online review either complains about the price or defends it, it's an indication the fight is against the ingrained expectation that tacos are supposed to be cheap. Thank Taco Bell and Del Taco for making tacos a commodity more than a food. But Taco Asylum, as you might have guessed by now, is not a typical taco stand—a species far removed from the corporate chains and the hole-in-the-wall taquerías. It is a designer taco shop, with a flat-screen television tuned to its own Twitter feed. It boasts a respectable library of eclectic draft and bottled beers. It sells thin, burned-looking homemade chips dusted with a caustic smoked serrano-chile powder, designed to make you buy more beer. The menu is otherwise just tacos and only tacos, vaguely Mexican in inspiration, but global in aspiration. There's not a morsel of carne asada, a speck of refried beans or a crusty-lipped bottle of Tapatío.
Taco Asylum, in fact, bottles its own hot sauces, one of which contains the ground-up flesh of the ghost pepper, also known as the Bhut Jolokia, the hottest chile in the world. You don't use the sauce as condiment as much as you dare others to use it. The sauce and the ghost chili pork taco, which has the raw chile whittled down to threads as thin as filament, exist purely for the entertainment value. The Haven boys know this. They milk the gimmick to good effect on the restaurant's Facebook and Twitter. Customers are encouraged to record themselves eating it, wincing, choking, crying, while their friends hoot and holler. To actually take up the challenge and apply any amount of the sauce on the tacos will do nothing but leave the back of your throat scorched and your internal organs twisted into knots for hours.
Besides, you want to taste every nuanced gourmet ingredient you paid for. To be sure, the chefs prepare every component in a style indicating a lot of thought, work and effort. Between the flour-tortilla folds, some fillings are more successful than others. The octopus is tender and flavorful by itself; in a taco, it's elusive, easily overpowered by sharp kalamata olives and feta. It's the same for the beef heart, bullied by sour radish pickles and peppers to become nothing more than tasteless, rubbery things. An unctuous pork belly would taste marvelous as an appetizer drizzled in sauce, but the bánh mì-inspired add-ons of cilantro, daikon radish and carrot pickles send a mixed message and become all you taste.
The curried paneer taco is faultless, however. So is the wild mushroom taco. The latter is the most balanced of the bunch, and therefore the best, even if the fried chickpeas included for texture have a tendency to fall out before the first bite. A funky, good braised lamb tastes like something you'd want to eat with warm mashed potatoes, and the duck feels more like carnitas than the pork in the ghost chili pork, which, in turn, owes its success to the microcubes of rendered pork cracklings rather than the ghost pepper or the pork.
All are photogenic, the prettiest tacos you'll ever see, with not a leaf of garnish out of place, but arranged on custom-made sheet-metal platforms that are helpless in preventing the grease from dribbling out of the taco and onto your table. If there's one other thing that needs tweaking, it's the flour tortillas. The texture is problematic, as the tortillas are often as stiff as an overstarched shirt. The issue is most noticeable when you order the $18 eight-taco sampler. On the first taco you eat, the tortillas will be somewhat pliant; but the prolonged exposure to air renders the last few dry and stale, requiring a good bit of mastication before you can swallow.
I expect Taco Asylum to figure out how to fix this over time (or perhaps resort to more traditional corn tortillas), just as Haven figured out how to make its once-shaky gastropub the toast of the Orange Circle. But with a public predisposed to paying next to nothing for tacos, there's a bigger challenge here. With the overhead, the ambitious mise en place, I don't think it can afford to charge any less, but will it surge onward after the hype subsides? On one particularly slow weeknight, the Twitter-fed TV was static, with no updates except for those left hours before by a PR person. What some have called self-aggrandizing and others smart, now seemed strangely neither.
This review appeared in print as “Twittered Taco: The Haven Gastropub creators try their hand at a gourmet taco stand.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.