Converting skeptical diners is as much a part of the new-restaurant game these days as satisfying enthusiastic ones. For each customer eager to experience the new place in town there's an equal or greater number of cynics more interested in being "first" than being happy. That's especially true when a concept is the opposite of unique as in the case of tacos.
"Nothing is original anymore, especially when it comes to food," admits T.J. Ingersoll. "You're always building off something. Since the beginning, I've tried to separate myself from the other guys."
Ingersoll has been doing just that at his Kent-based taco shop Fresco Mexican Grill since the tail end of 2012. That two-and-a-half-year-old shop is the culmination of a lifetime spent in the restaurant business, and it's the sprout of a budding, home-grown, taco-fueled enterprise.
In late March, Ingersoll opened his second shop, this one in the former home of Mad Tex Burgers in the Beachcliff shopping plaza in Rocky River. Like the original, this one is as festive as a piñata, filled with candy-colored lights, walls and menu boards. There is seating for about 80 guests at high tops, booths and communal tables. Diners place their order at the counter, pay and grab a seat. Meals are delivered to your table.
The young owner's time working as a national corporate trainer for P.F. Chang's shows the moment you walk through the door. Guests are ushered in with a warm, enthusiastic greeting by staffers who genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. If it's your first time — or you need a refresher — they'll gladly walk you through the entire menu, offering up suggestions to suit your wants and needs.
As the name implies, the theme here is "fresh," with everything made to order from housemade components. The core menu is built around tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
There are about two dozen options in all, ranging in price from a three-dollar taco up to a 12-dollar fajita platter. Appetizers like chips and guacamole ($4.99) and warm queso ($4.99) and salads crowned with grilled chicken ($7.99) or seasoned taco meat ($7.99) round out the Tex Mex offerings.
The barbacoa beef and pulled pork are marinated for 24 hours and then slow braised for another 10 or so. Both arrive in a pair of warm corn tortillas (or soft flour or crispy corn) with garnishes like onions, lettuce and house sauce in the case of the barbacoa, or black beans and corn salsa in the case of the pork.
Other taco fillings include grilled chicken, grilled fish and crispy batter-fried fish. Tacos can be purchased individually or in combinations of three for $7.99.
The large flour wrappers for the burritos ($6.99) are griddled rather than steamed, and are filled with grilled chicken, seasoned taco beef, pulled pork or a meat-free version crammed with just beans, rice and cheese.
One of the best features of Fresco — indeed its signature element — is its salsa bar. Most menu items include bottomless baskets of thin, cantina-style tortilla chips and access to a well-stocked salsa station. The ice-filled display contains seven "anchor" varieties plus a few seasonal ones. Sauces run the gamut from a straightforward pico to a screaming-hot habanero. Others like salsa verde and salsa asada are bright, fresh and appealing. On top of those, there's a collection of approximately 25 bottled commercial hot sauces.
When the paperwork goes through, Fresco will join its sister to the south and begin serving beer, wine and frozen margaritas.
New customers can be forgiven for assuming that Fresco is a link in a large national chain of fast-casual taco shops given its ready-for-primetime look, feel and customer service.
Ingersoll is a keen operator who began his hospitality career at the tender age of five, washing dishes at one of his father's many restaurants. In the years between he's manned every station, including keeping the minutes at his dad's board meetings. To him, running his own restaurant isn't a job, but rather an existence he's been ordained to inhabit from before he was born.
"I know it's cliché, but they say if you have fun at what you do then you never work a day in your life," he says. "I feel like I never work a day in my life."
It's too early to know for sure, but judging by my own personal experience and the early reception from neighbors, Fresco Mexican Grill will earn a strong following in Rocky River. And, assuming everything goes as planned, the startup will continue its patient, steady growth.
"My focus right now is this store — and obviously the one in Kent," Ingersoll says. "But we definitely have plans for a little more growth. Just not too fast."