Taco Yoko was literally years in the making.
“We decided to move forward as soon as COVID happened,” co-owner Jameel Gaskins said. He said it took more than a year to deal with the permit issues and progress slowed further when supply chain weirdness made basic building materials extremely expensive or unobtainable.
“We also wanted to adapt to the changing food landscape,” Gaskins said, “so more affordable and lots of takeout.”
The restaurant, located on the ground floor of the RUTH Apartments at 285 W. 800 South, opened in late April. Gaskins said people started drifting by before or after a visit to Fisher’s Brewery down the street, and some of the apartment’s residents had already become regulars.
“You see the same faces every day – the people who live and work here keep coming back,” Gaskins said. “We see people coming in, and we already know their order.”
The dining room is modest in size and the menu is just shy of 20 items. But chef Devon Auchterlonie and sous chef Jaime Ordaz said it was simple on purpose.
“I wanted something small and doable, so we could do what we do really well,” Auchterlonie said. “When we opened Yoko Ramen, we were trying a lot of crazy stuff, and it was hard. I learned a lot in five years. You don’t have to have all the bells and whistles. You just you need to do it right, and in the same vein, you need to use great products and local farmers.
Auchterlonie pulled out some of the day’s vegetables from the cooler to show off: a dish of snowy lion’s mane mushrooms and forage ramps.
“Lion’s Mane Mushrooms are great grilled – they’re very juicy and meaty, and good for your brain too,” he says. “Ramps are hyper-seasonal. These are from Idaho.
Ordaz added: “The setup is so nice for the veggies. They are cooked on a grill, not a flat grill, so they have a nice crunch and char on them.
Although they occasionally source ingredients out of state, including ancient Rancho Gordo beans from Napa Valley, much of Yoko’s produce is grown on farms in Murray, Sugar House, and Rose Park. As the cultures constantly rotate, the menu changes two or three times a week. “And I get bored of doing the same thing over and over again,” Auchterlonie said, “so I’m going to change the preparation or order something different.”
But, he added, the “big three – carnitas, pork belly and chicken – aren’t going anywhere.”
Over the next few weeks, Ordaz said, the restaurant will add breakfast items. “I’m thrilled about this, because it’s like my childhood come alive – really simple eggs, beans, your choice of meat, grilled,” Ordaz said. “It’s my specialty, that’s for sure.”
Ordaz’s favorite dish right now is kimchi pico on pork belly, but he was careful to note that Yoko Taco is not fusion cuisine.
“We sell tacos first,” he said. “We’re not trying to do crazy, over-the-top concepts. We don’t put microgreens on everything. We just want to sell good tacos.
Yoko Taco has a dish you won’t see anywhere else in town: the pig ear taco.
“You boil them, steam them, burn off all the hairs, then pressure cook them for an hour and a half,” Auchterlonie said. “Then you cool them, chop them and then fry them. There’s a ton of work that goes into that one ingredient, but it tastes delicious. It’s really crispy and chewy and unique.
In Mexico, Ordaz said, pig’s ear is typically used in stews, rather than served crispy on a taco. Once people try it, they love it. A regular who first tried it with some reluctance, he said, now orders it regularly over a torta.
“We’ll put anything on a torta,” Ordaz said. That’s partly because the tortas here are custom-made for Yoko Taco by Panadería Flores down the street.
These types of relationships, Gaskins said, are critical to how Yoko Taco does things. The restaurant is in Salt Lake City’s Granary District, which, like many neighborhoods near downtown, is becoming increasingly mixed – with bars, restaurants, shops, and apartments side-by-side. This creates an atmosphere that feels more like a neighborhood and less like an old fashioned business district.
“We are great friends with the owners of Water Witch. We collaborate with Central Ninth Market. I find it unique, coming from another city,” said Gaskins, who grew up in Philadelphia. “Things may have changed, but there it was a lot of competition. Here there is room for everyone.
Gaskins stressed that the pandemic hasn’t had the final say on the restaurant’s plans. As the world returns to a more even keel, Gaskins said Yoko Taco plans to expand next year — and apply for one of those coveted Utah liquor licenses.
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