- Alex Springer
It's always good to see a local brand spread its wings and expand its brand a bit. Usually this takes the form of a carbon copy with a similar menu, which is all good and well; if it's good food, the more the merrier. What I find even more interesting, however, is when restaurants make a move to both expand their brand while tackling a new concept or menu. It happens very rarely—I can't imagine how difficult this is to pull off—but it's always an exciting development to watch.
In this case, I'm talking about Yoko Taco (285 W. 800 South, 385-218-4325, yokotacoslc.com), one of the Granary District's most popular neighborhood eateries. Born from the minds of Asher Seevnick, Jameel Gaskins and Josh Rosenthal who brought us Yoko Ramen (473 E. 300 South), Yoko Taco is a far cry from the broth and noodles served up by their flagship. I've visited a few times since it opened in April of this year, and it's maintained its share of regulars. Like Yoko Ramen, Yoko Taco knows how to give an urban community of increasingly discerning diners what they want. Some like to scoff at street foods like tacos and ramen, but when you know how to pair their innate versatility with some excellent flavor concepts, it's easy to see why they will always be near to our hearts.
The visual language inside Yoko Taco very much matches up with the cool décor of Yoko Ramen, and their street taco-inspired menu maintains the same brand of clever flavor combos. I've been able to try every one of their tacos, which can definitely be done in one visit if you've skipped breakfast. If this is your gameplan, however, I would suggest grabbing a healthy stack of napkins before heading back to your table. When the late food writer Jonathan Gold said that taco should be a verb when done properly, this is what he was talking about. I would call the tacos at Yoko "street tacos"—the smaller corn tortilla, fresh salsas, chopped onion and cilantro are all here—but they also happen to be stuffed to the point of overflowing. It's not uncommon to have all those flavorful carnitas and tomatillo juices running down your forearm while you gleefully struggle to maintain control.
Speaking of carnitas, those tacos ($5) are the best place to start. They have everything you want in a taco: savory, marinated carnitas topped with some vibrant tomatillo salsa, chopped cabbage and a dash of cilantro. Squirt a bit of lime juice on top and chase it with a cold can of Modelo, and you've got your summertime vibe all squared away. Their fried chicken taco ($5) is also a winner—I'd stack this up against any of the myriad fried chicken sandwiches that currently dominate our fast-food scene. This is the good stuff, brined and deep-fried to crispy perfection. It's topped with a modest coterie of slaw and house salsa, because you want that piece of fried gold front and center.
As much as I love their fried chicken, I think Yoko Taco is at its best when it sticks to its arsenal of pork. Take the pork belly taco ($6), for instance. When I hear pork belly, I always expect to see those thick, fatty cubes of bacon-on-overdrive.
Here, you get a beautifully tender slice of chashu pork belly topped with this amazing kimchi pico de gallo. Not only are you getting a truly inspired combination of Asian and Mexican flavors that doesn't feel gimmicky, but you've got a common thread between Yoko Taco and Yoko Ramen. It's also amazing—chashu pork evidently plays very nice with tacos.
I think a good taqueria should always have a nod to their street cart forebears who serve up traditional recipes of tripe, beef tongue and head cheese, and Yoko has something akin to that as well. Their pig ear taco ($4) is a great way to dip one's toes into the protein subgenre known as offal. It's a generous pile of sliced pig ears that have been steamed, chopped, fried and topped with a handful of chopped onion and cilantro. I've had pig ears that lean into their cartilaginous chew, but the pig ears at Yoko are much more into the crunchy side of things. In some ways I feel like the pig ears would almost be better served on top of the pork belly instead of as the centerpiece of their own taco, but I enjoyed this taco all the same.
Yoko Taco doesn't skimp on the protein, for sure, but they also offer a daily veg taco ($4) that includes whatever seasonal veggies the crew has on hand—mine had some buttery grilled lion's mane mushrooms that were fantastic. On top of that, all of their tacos are available in torta or burrito form, which are helpful upgrades for when you've found the taco that defines you as a person and simply want more of it.
I feel like opening Yoko Taco was a bold move, and it looks like it's paying off for the team. As the restaurant is still fairly new to the scene, it will be exciting to see what new flavors they experiment with and how their menu continues to evolve. For now, however, I will be more than content with those pork belly tacos.