GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Just in time for a Cinco de Mayo, Grand Rapids has a new place to get your taco fix.
Taco Borracho celebrated its grand opening Thursday.
“I’m excited to share what we did with people. I’m excited for people to come here and enjoy the space,” owner Angel Gonzalez said.
The business at the northwest corner of Michigan Street and Eastern Avenue NE features specialty lighting, velvet banquettes, a color scheme centered on Caribbean cultures and a garage door that opens up to an outdoor patio with seating, planters and privacy shades.
Taco Borracho’s crowning glory is the indoor-outdoor marble bar, which became a part of the plan when Gonzalez discovered he would need to replace the building’s windows as part of the energy code for a restaurant.
Gonzalez said the new windows meant spending another $75,000, “but it became an opportunity… for me to create a new unique space.”
“I just wanted to do something that was different. I wanted to create this really beautiful inviting space,” he said.
CONVERTING A CAR WASH
Before it was Taco Borracho, the building at 755 Michigan St. NE was a car wash.
A kitchen now stands where the car wash supply closet was located. Tables and banquettes line the space where the wash tunnel once stood.
The building’s unusual layout worked in Gonzalez’s favor when building the bar. Standing behind it, you get a panoramic view of the dining area.
“After seeing the way it works and the way it flows and the beauty of it, I think if I was building this (building) new now, knowing this… I would want to build it with this same kind of footprint,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez started noticing the possibilities for the space about a month before the car wash closed while driving in the area with his son.
“I said to him, ‘You can kind of see the writing on the wall.’ They weren’t very busy, which is unfortunate, but that’s what happens sometimes. And I said to my son, ‘This space is going to become a really unique space for somebody, and a restaurant would probably be ideal,’” he said.
When the car wash shut down, Gonzalez called up a commercial real estate broker who got him in the building. After pausing his plans during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzalez finally agreed on a deal at the end of 2020. Taco Borracho was coming to Grand Rapids.
“I just started painting a picture right away. I could see where things were going to go and how we would place things,” he said.
Despite tackling many of the renovations himself, it has taken Gonzalez about 18 months and roughly $50,000 more than his original $350,000 project estimate to get to this point. He first hoped to be open late last year, but hit delays getting tables, restaurant products, kitchen equipment and a liquor license. Gonzalez said the license alone took 13 months.
“Everything took longer than what I anticipated, and then there’s me,” he said with a laugh. “I always take my time with things so I can do them the right way. So all that and here we are, but I think it’s a perfect time for us now.”
Once everything is running smoothly and Taco Borracho has adequate staffing, Gonzalez plans to transform the southwestern patio and corner of the building into a greenhouse for growing ingredients and hosting semi-private dining and events.
“Nothing is halfway, nothing is halfhearted. Everything is put 100% of my heart, my energy, my soul into this place and do it the right way,” he said.
Gonzalez is also fully invested into the flavors on Taco Borracho’s menu. They showcase the diverse Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago where he grew up and his family’s Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban roots.
“I’m going to try to bring a little bit of that in the menu,” he said.
Taco Borracho will serve up tacos, a Cuban steak sandwich that Gonzalez’s brother-in-law created, a Puerto Rican steak sandwich, a Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican rice mix, and pasteles, which is a Puerto Rican spin on empanadas.
“We had them growing up as kids and we would get them at the corner store and they were the best thing ever, but they’re really delicious,” Gonzalez said.
Customers who opt for tacos can choose between flour, corn or romaine lettuce shells. Taco Borracho’s menu also includes chips and salsa and desserts like tres leches, flan and freshly made churros.
Gonzalez said the restaurant will use fresh, local ingredients including cilantro, tomatoes and meat.
Taco Borracho will start with lunch and dinner. Gonzalez hopes to open for brunch in a few weeks. That menu would also infuse Latin and Hispanic flavors into some traditional breakfast items, like waffles and eggs.
“We just have so much to offer and I wanted this place to be an extension of those things. So when people come here, you feel that. You feel our music, you feel our seasoning, you feel our personalities and our energy and who we are. To me, that’s what sets us apart more than anything, is being able to come in here and to feel all those different aspects in one place,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is also tapping into his native Chicago for another industry trend: self-serve drink towers for groups to share beer, cocktails or other beverages.
“That’s kind of the rave over there,” he said.
Taco Borracho’s cocktail menu will focus on blending old and modern. Tequila drinks will use agave nectar and the team will make their own simple syrup in house, use all-natural fruit purees, and offer local spirits, including from Holland-based Coppercraft Distillery.
While Taco Borracho translates to “drunk taco,” the restaurant isn’t forgetting those who would rather skip the alcohol. The list of mocktails include frozen watermelon, peach, mango and strawberry margaritas, mojitos and Moscow mules.
“I don’t drink, so I wanted to make sure that we had had some mocktails and we had some stuff on here that was virgin but is really good,” Gonzalez said.
While Gonzalez has spent nearly 20 years building and developing housing in the city, this is his first commercial restaurant project.
“It’s a learning curve. Every step of the way I’m learning something new, but I enjoy it,” he said.
Gonzalez said transforming a former car wash into a restaurant was overwhelming at times, but that’s when friends and family stepped in to help, including his late father, also named Angel.
“He would come in and he would just say that the people are gonna love it,” Gonzalez said. “He’s like, ‘They’re gonna love the food that you’re bringing to the table.’ And he would always say, ‘I’ve never tasted food with this kind of seasoning,’ because he loved food. He was a foodie.”
Gonzalez said he is heartbroken his father, who came in every day to check on the restaurant’s progress and share design ideas, won’t be there for Taco Borracho’s grand opening.
“He was just proud of it. He knew that the seeds of what we’re doing now, were seeds that he planted a long time ago,”Gonzalez said.
He said despite wearing a face mask and social distancing, his father, who was a cancer survivor, contracted COVID-19. He told the family he didn’t feel well on his 63rd birthday in November. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where he remained for two weeks.
“It was heartbreaking because it was so unexpected, you know the way he died,” Gonzalez said. “It just hit him in like one day and like the next day he was basically like in a coma, they put him in. And that was it. That was really hard for us.”
Gonzalez said birthday parties and other family milestones are hard without his father there. He finds comfort in sharing stories of his father, who had already claimed his role in the restaurant before his death.
“He’s like, ‘I want to be the doorman. I want to be the guy that’s like, you know, taking people’s IDs and making sure they can come in.’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, Dad, that’s going to be you,’” Gonzalez said with a smile, adding that his father didn’t drink alcohol.
Gonzalez said he also sees glimpses of his father in the rest of his family, some of whom will be working at the restaurant.
“The things that made him unique and special, it’s in all of us. It’s in my kids, it’s in all of his grandkids, my nieces, my nephews. It’s just, it’s there and you see it — you’ll see this little something and you’re like, oh yeah, it’s undeniable that came from Dad. Whether you like it or not, you can’t get away from it,” he said.
Gonzalez also lost his grandmother in August.
“It was a tough year for all of us,” Gonzalez said.
He knows what his father would say if he was there for the restaurant opening.
“He would say, ‘I told you … this place was going to be beautiful and people are going to love your food,’” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “He would just be happy. He would just be very, very happy.”
Taco Borracho’s starting business hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. on the patio and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.