Taco Shack opens on University, bringing 'Arizona-style' Mexican food to Tempe

Ladies and gentlemen, it's a historic moment in the heart of Tempe: a competitor to Chipotle has appeared in the form of a locally-owned taco shop, nonetheless.

Taco Shack opened Oct. 17 on the corner of University Drive and McKemy Street, just minutes away from the Tempe campus and with a menu straight from college student heaven. Tacos, burritos, burgers, enchiladas and an all-day breakfast menu make up just a fraction of the many options — most for under $5.

Co-owner Jonathan Moffat talked about how Taco Shack is setting itself a part from the rest of the Mexican food selection near ASU.

"This location is right in the middle of what I feel is a taco-needing community. I mean that literally — there's a real need for a taco here," he said. "You can buy a taco at Rosita's (Fine Mexican Food) or Chipotle, and they're both wonderful, but we needed something in between the two. A hybrid, if you will."

The goal of Taco Shack is to combine the quality and flavor of sit-down cuisine with the affordable prices of national Mexican food chains through an order-at-the-counter style, but made-to-order food.

Moffat said that the combination of locally-produced corn tortillas, hearty portions of meat and great prices make Taco Shack a better value than Chipotle. The restaurant hopes to appeal to college students, the local workforce and the community as a whole.

So far, it's been a success. The restaurant works with apps like GrubHub and Postmates to offer delivery and pickup services to its customers, and it plans to launch its own delivery system in a few weeks. In the meantime, business has been brisk with new customers eager to try what the owners dub "Arizona-style tacos."

Co-owner and manager Enrique Saucedo said that Taco Shack is focused on keeping its food local.  

"(Our food) is geared toward everyone who lives in this area," he said.  

That means combining elements from the various cultures that make up the local population, which sets Taco Shack apart from the competition.

"It's a unique group (of co-owners) we have," Moffat said.  "We're all based in different cultures.  Enrique has a Mexican heritage background. I'm just a regular American, and my wife is from Thailand. The three of us putting our heads together sounds kind of strange when you talk about Mexican food, but it's a hybrid Mexican food, if you will."

The unusualness of "hybrid" food may turn some customers away, but most people are curious and eager to try it, according to Taco Shack cashier Leslie Jahung.

"There's a lot of Mexican restaurants but not a lot of taco shops, so this is really one of a kind," she said. "People come in curious, and I think people want to try something different, authentic and delicious."

When asked for recommendations, she suggests that customers try the chicken tinga, carne asada or California tacos or the taco sampler, in order to taste a variety of what the restaurant has to offer. None of its products contain lard, and vegetarian and vegan customers can order regular items without dairy or meat to accommodate their needs.

Taco Shack's owners are constantly looking for customer feedback on ways to improve the beginning stages of their new location.

"It's just like any relationship, whether you're starting a marriage or a taco place," Saucedo said. "Every day we sit down with customer feedback and we try to change and improve."

All of the restaurants co-owners share that goal of daily improvement, and they're already beginning to see the results. When the store opened, its hours were from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but they quickly found that few people were showing up at their taco shop by the crack of dawn.

"Six a.m. is so early that it's actually the middle of the night right here," Moffat laughed. "There's not even anyone at Circle K (across the street) at that time." 

This week, the owners decided to change the hours of operation to 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., although they hope to expand the hours again to include the breakfast rush once they have a loyal customer base.

If the owners of Taco Shack have one goal, it's to make the restaurant better every day, and eventually to expand business and open more locations throughout Tempe and Phoenix. But for now, they're just looking to make their first location the best place it can be.

"There's always room to improve anywhere in life, including in a taco shop," Moffat said.

Related Links:

Where to celebrate Taco Tuesdays in Tempe

The Valley's Best Mexican Food

Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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