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Todd Erickson On The First Year at Huahua's Taqueria

Just under a year ago, the creative minds behind HaVen, Mike Bowles, Niloy Thakkar and Todd Erickson, opened up Huahua's Taqueria, a fast-casual, taco-centric eatery (named in honor of Bowles' Chihuahua, Jalapena) that offers playful takes on Mexican dishes on Lincoln Road. We caught up with chef Erickson, who gushed about their TV-famous fried chicken tacos and told us his plans for the future. Here's what Huahua's was like this past year and what's coming next:

Overall, how was this past year at Huahua's?
The past year at Huahua's has been incredible. Just the way that the local community has embraced it as like their place is all that you could really ask for as a restaurateur and chef. It's just great that people feel so passionately about our tacos. To have that reaction is just — I can't think of enough words — just great. It's a really good feeling. There's been a lot of good press too, but even more than the press there's been a lot of people in the community going like, "oh my god we love Huahua's!" With HaVen it's been more of kind of an underground kind of thing. It doesn't have as much of a mass appeal to families and older people across the board like Huahua's. Everyone seems to find something that they love on the menu here, so it's very cool.

What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced over the year?
Well, all of us, Mike Bowles Niloy Thakkar and myself had never done fast casual before. My background is food and dining, Mikes background is nightlife and entertainment and we put together a menu that we thought would work in the kitchen that we had and the space that we had to serve it in and just really streamlining. For me, it was understanding the amount of prep and the actual amount of food that we were going through. It way surpassed my expectations, just the quantity of fresh ingredients that we were going through was something that was like, wow, this is something that we need to reassess and make work in the space that we've been allotted. And, our next space is definitely going to be bigger as far as indoor seating. As far as customers, that's been the biggest issue is that there's very, very little indoor seating. So, on round two, it's going to be a substantial dining room.

"Round two," new restaurant or expansion?
For Miami Beach we don't have a lot of room. We took the space that we had to work with and did the best that we could with it. But yeah, we are looking for additional spaces and we're looking around in the city. We'd like to build first in the South Florida area and then expand, and that's what it's looking like right now.

What's it like running both Haven and Huahua's?
Well, we keep renting spaces from our landlord, which must make him happy, but we have a storage unit, then a couple of doors down from the storage unit we have our office for both restaurants and both of those are above Huahua's and then HaVen is just four doors down from Huahua's, so it's kind of like the trifecta. I'm running in a triangle between the two restaurants, which makes it really easy. I know people that have restaurants across town and I'm sure that the scheduling and logistics are a lot different than what I have to do. I park in the same parking spot every day, which is nice, and then I just do my running in between the restaurants. What's nice is that we're just launching a whole new menu at HaVen, but that happened after our focus had been taken off of Huahua's. Huahua's was running and being managed properly, food costs are in line, so then I can shift — although I'm at Huahua's almost every day — I can shift main attention back to the other business and vice versa when there's an issue. I still make all of the hot sauces myself for Huahua's, which takes a couple of days because, you know, it's making 80-90 gallons of hot sauce at a time. So, that is a project that I'm like okay, HaVen's on cruise control for a couple of days. And we have great staff at both restaurants. The staff that run both restaurants are really incredible at what they do, and it's just about really good communication between all of us. I definitely can't do it all myself. None of us can.

What, if anything, has changed over the past year at Huahua's?
I think one of our biggest changes that people would notice was taking enchiladas off the menu and replacing them with burritos. Enchiladas were kind of a hard sell in this market, I think probably because it's so damn hot outside and it's a little more heavy, it's smothered in sauce and stuffed into the broiler and we have an outdoor seating area, so I don't think they caught on as well. We all thought they were absolutely delicious and we did have a few haters for taking them off the menu, but as soon as the burritos went on it was like, okay this is how it was meant to be. So, tacos and burritos is the way that it's going to be for Huahua's from now on. Other than that, we opened with a really solid branding, really solid look and identity, so other than some minor menu tweaks, it was almost 100% opening the doors. You can't really ask for more. Then it just becomes about tweaking the inner workings in back of the house and just making sure everything runs well and making money and everybody's happy.

What is your focus at the restaurant right now?
Keeping consistency. We're currently looking at different companies for the hot sauce line. We are in a very limited space, so for me to work with a company and standardize my recipes would be something that I could take that burden off and focus on really getting the hot sauce out there. We're really proud of the six different sauces that we sell. Looking for additional spaces is definitely on our agenda. One thing that's holding us back or not really holding us back, but the one thing that as a company we don't want to expand until we have mastered, is the delivery part of our business. And now that we're coming into the rainy season and I'm standing under an awning talking to you watching the rain come down and having such a patio-heavy dining room, the delivery part is really important to us to make sure that we have a good package deal. So, this is kind of our education. We're learning and tweaking from the first location. We want to get delivery down to a point where our tacos hold up really well and you're getting almost the same experience as if you're getting your order across the counter as if you're getting it from the car.

What was your proudest accomplishment with Huahua's?
The biggest accolade that we've had yet was that Food Network magazine naming our fried chicken taco one of the nation's 50 greatest. Each taco got a state in this feature and we're representing Florida, so our fried chicken taco represents Florida in Food Network magazine's eyes, which is great. And what came from that was Aaron Sanchez and the Cooking Channel decided to produce a show called Taco Trip and it was a show focusing on the best tacos in America and they thought that their show would not be complete without our fried chicken tacos. So, the week of South Beach Wine and Food when all of us are already crazy because we're doing too many events, we shot that special over two days with Aaron, who is one of the nicest guys I've ever worked with. The accolades have brought us new friendships and new recognition. It's been great. And the fact that we've got such a great neighborhood following, too, makes us so happy. Like I said, people are like, "that's my Huahua's!" [he laughs].

You mentioned wanting to first expand in South Florida, do you plan to take the restaurants out of Florida?
We see both restaurants expand outside of Florida. We have, especially at HaVen, a lot of international guests that are like, "we need one of these in Dubai." We've heard a lot of random countries, but a lot of them would seem to fit. New York, it's a huge compliment to me when New Yorkers come and they say, "we need this in our city," that's great! They have everything, so for them to say we'd be welcomed there is great. We've always got our eye out for that. With HaVen, we're currently opening in Fort Myers, we're under construction, but with Huahua's, we have people that don't want to come over to the beach because of the construction and they tell us we need one in Brickell, one in Hialeah, one in Broward, even the most minute of neighborhoods … You need one in Wynwood, in MiMo, we hear a different one every day. Hopefully we can keep up with the demand and vice versa.

Back to HaVen, not only did you revamp the menu, but you changed up some of the design. Tell me more about why you did that now.
We listened to our guests for one. People take me seriously as a chef, but it's hard to have a full on serious meal at those lower tables that we had, the lounge tables. That kind of limited what I could do as far as the menu goes because it's hard to dig into a steak when you're hunched over a table and people that were serious foodies they would come and sit out on the patio. But coming into the hot season when it's like 100% humidity, you don't really want to sit out on the patio and have a big, heavy meal, so we thought about that. We also thought about our third birthday and Mike and I have both said you don't want to rest on your laurels, which is very true and after three years we were like, "why not?" Mike actually made tables from nautical hydraulics and we had the tables custom built. All of the lounge tables are gone, but they're on hydraulics now, so when you walk into HaVen the dining room is set with placemats, silverware, glassware. When you walk in, there's no mistaking of what we are at 6 p.m. and then as the night progresses like around 11p.m. or midnight, you can unlock the tables and push them down and they go back to lounge height. So it's the best of both worlds. The response has been immediately, "wow," and we immediately thought, "wow why didn't we do this three years ago?" People are having more courses, ordering the steak, ordering the full-sized piece of halibut. We still have a bunch of small plates on the menu, but now there's more substantial options on there as well for a more traditional dining experience.

Does it feel like it's been a year?
No, absolutely not. It's an old, stale thing, but like, time flies when you're having fun. And I guess time flies when you're busting your ass too. It's been really fun, but it's been a lot of work, really, really a lot of work, but the rewards have been great. When they come by, people are shocked that we've only been here for a year and people are shocked that we only have one unit, just because of the way it was designed and branded. It looks like a chain and I guess I could take that the bad way or the good way, but we take it the good way because it makes it sound like we have our shit together [he laughs].
· All Coverage of Huahua's [EMIA]
[Photo Credit: Jipsy]