If you didn't know Tacko was owned by Nick Fasanella, the founder of Nick's Crispy Tacos and the Taco Shop @ Underdog's, you'd be forgiven for doing a double take when you get close enough to the menu board to read it. After all, you've just passed through a room decorated like the bar at a yacht club: WASP-white walls. Lights that look like they were salvaged from a 120-footer. Framed covers from Yachting magazine above the tables. The counter staff wears white polo shirts and khakis, and lest you not understand the Nantucket airport code (ACK) reference in the restaurant's name, there are maps of the Massachusetts island and Nantucket tourism posters on the walls.
But when you make it up to the counter and look up at the menu, you find only tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and — oh! — a lobster roll.
A Nantucket-themed taco shop in San Francisco seems a bit quixotic, but it's not that far out of step with the times. In the past three years, all manner of cooks have been torquing the taco to fit the contours of their culinary heritage. I've chased down sisig tacos with avocado salsa, kalbi tacos with gingery cabbage slaw, and roast duck tacos with hoisin sauce. I've certainly enjoyed Fasanella's famous crispy tacos a number of times — he's no longer involved with Nick's Crispy Taco, but he's been in residence at Underdog's in the Inner Sunset for several years now.
I did call up a friend who used to review restaurants in Cape Cod to ask her if there were such a thing as a Nantucket taco. Once she stopped guffawing — which came in waves, since she Googled photos of Tacko as we talked — she admitted she'd never heard of such a thing. According to Yelp, there are, in fact, tacos on the island: A place called Millie's apparently does a lovely ahi taco with sesame-fennel salad.
The assimilation of tacos into WASP kitchens is a recent thing. Texas has a long tradition of making crispy tacos, but they were mostly unknown outside the border states until after World War II. “Gabachos [white folks] have been appropriating tacos forever, especially since the 1950s and the dawn of fast-food and packaged-food industries,” Gustavo Arellano, author of the forthcoming Taco USA, wrote me last week. Taco Bell's Glen Bell “was really the pioneer, but don't forget the guys up in Oregon who founded Taco Time, or the food companies like Rosarita's and Old El Paso who sold cocktail tacos, which were essentially bite-sized fried slop.” Taco recipes didn't start appearing in mainstream American cookbooks until the 1960s, modeled after Taco Bell and Taco Time. Most were fried — a rarity in Mexico — and packed with shredded lettuce, grated cheese, and ground beef.
This is the culinary heritage incorporated into Tacko's tacos, and I had to give props to Fasanella for dispensing with all pretense of Mexican-ness, Latino kitchen staff excepted. However, Tacko's sole Nantucket dish, a lobster roll ($18), was no testament to East Coast cuisine. The cooks sliced a squared-off slab of bread in half, buttered and griddled it crisp, and stuffed the bread with overcooked, rubbery lobster. One more nautical touch: You can also order fresh fruit juices, sangria, or “Margaritish” drinks ($18.50 for the last of these, made with agave wine that burns from gums to gullet) in colored beach pails filled with crushed ice.
Tacko also serves “street tacos” that approximate authentic ones: soft tortillas filled with wagyu beef marinated in cumin and chile, kurobuta pork carnitas, or blandish poached chicken ($6.50 for three). If you've ever in your life been to a taco truck, you'll want to pass them by, though — they have none of the North American add-ons that compensate for the half-hearted spicing in the meats, or the tameness of the squeeze-bottle salsas stored on the table. Also skip the corn on the cob ($3.50) paved over in cotija cheese, which isn't nearly as good as the one sold from a cart at the ballpark at Harrison and 25th streets, as well as the black bean and corn taco salad ($7.50), primarily shredded romaine tossed with a few drops of dressing and spindly tortilla strips.
However, Tacko's ultra-gabacho California-style burrito ($8.25), which forgoes rice and beans for crisp, skinny french fries and melted cheese, is genuinely hard to stop eating. Stuffed with grilled beef and tomato salsa, it's equally crunchy and gooey, reminiscent of the masterpieces your friends came up with in the perpetually baked stage of life.
But the real reason San Franciscans love Fasanella's taquerias is for the tacos “Nick's way,” sold by the piece, the fillings encased in one crisp tortilla wrapped in an unfried one, all held together by a paper envelope. Tacko's grilled steak or carnitas crispy tacos ($4.50) are as good as they've always been, overflowing with a bright pico de gallo and lime-spiked guacamole, creamy-centered pinto beans and melted cheese spilling out with every bite.
And the Baja taco, Nick's way ($5.50), is Fasanella's pièce de resistance, the one that finally fuses Massachusetts and Mexico and actually makes some sense: one fat fillet of mahi, bubbly gold breading crackling even as you pick it up, swaddled in a nest of shredded cabbage, onions, and cilantro sprigs. It offers crunch upon crunch upon crunch, and the flavor flares when zapped with a spot of roasted tomatilla salsa, smoky and vivid, over the top. You don't need to be white to agree with me: Oh, my stars and garters! It is good.