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Chef Steve Santana on Becoming a Chef, Making Masa and Opening Taquiza

Web developer turned chef Steve Santana talks about opening up his own taqueria (and reveals a menu).

Last week chef Steve Santana announced plans for his first ever restaurant,  a street taqueria in the former Eva hotel called Taquiza. Eater recently chatted him up on everything diners can expect once the eatery opens up this month. Think tons of corn tortillas made in house, a few of Steves favorite tacos, beers and eventually a wine list. Check out the working menu after the interview.

For those who don't know you, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

My background starts with twelve years of professional web development. So I was like twelve years solid with that. Throughout that I met up with Jeremiah [Bullfrog] through one of those Cobaya dinners and all that, and then that's when he first got his gastropub, so I just started working with him a little bit on the side, for fun. Then about four years later I'm still helping him for fun, then he got the position at the Freehand for the Shaker, so he was pretty much like, "I have this thing, if you want to do culinary for real... this is your change." So I just gave everything up and was like, "okay!" I just jumped in and started with him. I was at the Freehand for two years and change. Then he left and I stayed. I took over the Freehand and the Shaker and was there for like another year and a half by myself running it. Then I jumped over to Eating House with Giorgio [Rapicavoli] and while I was there the owner of this building called me to say he has a new space with a kitchen. It was actually operating when he got it, so he shut it down while he was renovating and was like, "you want to do like a taco spot, something quick and easy?" Mainly for the guests... I'm like, "yes." So it started like that. I left Eating House, came here like three weeks ago to start full time and get things working as soon as possible.

Tell me a little bit about the concept of Taquiza.

Mainly because of the space we have, our whole concept is to do very... there's no table service, no waiters or waitresses, there's just a big window, open kitchen... pretty much like a street-style, alsmost like a food truck but without wheels. It's a street taqueria, you go up, order, eat it outside on the little patio or take it to the beach, it's just a block away. Will there be delivery? Yeah, that's definitely happening. We'll open up normal, then start doing pick-up orders and after that we'll transition into doing delivery also.

What's the story behind the name of the restaurant?

The name was like a mission. We were like trying to figure out a name for a month. I had a good idea, everyone had a good idea, but no one was really figuring it out. So, we have an agency that threw a few ideas at us and that one everyone seemed to be like, "okay, we can do that." A "taquiza" is a thing in Mexico. When you have a taquiza, you have a bunch of people over to your house and you have a little table, a bunch of tortillas with everything on the table. Like a taco party. We were like, "that makes sense." And that's pretty much how we're going to fashion our delivery, that model. So you'll order a taquiza and you'll get a bunch of tortillas, a bunch of meat and everything and then you just go crazy at home or whatever. I think it's pretty cool.

Do you have any Mexican background?

No. I gathered all of this from all these friends that are from Mexico and their family that's from Mexico. I've been asking a thousand questions like "how do you do this and how do you do this, is this right?" So I have about five consultants out there and everything I come up with a bounce it off them. It's all very regional and they're all from different places, so I ask them, I ask them to ask their mom. It's been cool. I've tracked down some equipment just through those channels. The first grinder we got to do our test with masa... that's another thing, we're going all our masa in house. We're not buying tortillas, we're buying corn, cooking it, pressing it, the whole thing. That was a whole learning process just trying to figure that out, but I think we're good.

Where have you been practicing?

At home at first and then last week I started making them in the kitchen. How did you come up with the menu? Some of them are just tacos I love from going to Viva Mexico or .. like I always get carnitas, always al pastor, always lenguas ... favorite, favorite, favorite. Some other ones, I have a few books that I got from Mexico. It's fun reading in Spanish and figuring it out. Some stuff I used to do at the Shaker. We used to have so many tequila sponsored parties. I had a few of those recipes worked out already.

Who's going to be working with you?

There'll be a main cook, I'll always be there, two other guys in the line. Depending on the volume and time of day, we'll have two people or three people. I already have a few people lined up, so I'm just waiting to fire it up. What are the hours going to be like? At first, we're thinking 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday. Then Friday and Saturday late night until like 3 a.m. Late night is for sure happening. It might be Thursday, Friday and Saturday or just Friday and Saturday, but it's definitely happening. We just have to.

What are you most excited about with the opening?

Still just the masa. We're getting like the full, big grinder. And we're going to keep playing with that. So, now I feel like a little more comfortable with it, but at first it was super challenging. I'm still testing two kinds of corn. So, one is from Anson Mills, this other one's coming from Mexico. We're trying to pick just one corn, but we did a baby tasting the other day and we might have one just for chips, then one for tortillas. One seems to perform better fried, super crispy and nice. The process starts the same either way. You get the corn, rinse it wash it, then you mix it with cal, which is pretty much limestone that's been cooked until it pretty much becomes powder, it's like pickling lime. There's a ratio for dry corn to that and you cook it for thirty minutes to an hour until it's just soft — it's all touch, you have to test the corn, feel it. When it's ready you cover it and leave it overnight, 8 to 12 hours. It's a process. So that's exciting and nerve wracking because you can't make it on the fly, you have to have it. Then when you have the corn, that's when you can finally grind it and you start adding a little bit of water and it's all by feel. Once you make the tortilla it's like done, it's like a time bomb. You can't preserve, you have to use it that day. We're still testing, but we feel pretty good.

When do you plan to open?

We were thinking by the 15, but I'm just calling October. I want to do it before November. We're actually pretty close.Just a few little things to work out, but we're pretty there.

taquiza menu

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