Todd Gardiner, chef and owner at the recently opened Taqueria 27 in Lamplighter Square, has been working in restaurants for much of his life. He began washing dishes and bussing tables when he was 12 at Creekside Bistro—which eventually became Oceans, Pine and then Matsu. From there, he moved on to The New Yorker, where, he says, he learned old-school, French-style discipline and technique as garde manger under Will Pliler, who is still executive chef at that venerable institution. Once Log Haven’s sous chef, he credits Executive Chef Dave Jones for really “teaching me how to cook,” and cites Jones as a major inspiration.
Gardiner then worked at Snowbird’s Aerie, Lodge Bistro and Wildflower restaurants before finally settling in for a 7-1/2-year stint as executive chef for Z’Tejas at The Gateway. I’ve known Gardiner for much of his culinary career, and it’s always rewarding to see guys and gals like him come up through the ranks—and, eventually, branch out on their own.
And, Taqueria 27 is his own baby. He doesn’t have any investors. It’s just his and his wife, Kristin’s, money bankrolling the place, plus a lot of sweat equity. Todd, Kristin and Todd’s parents spent months transforming the former Indian Unlimited market into a contemporary, upscale taqueria. Design elements like chrome chairs and metal-and-glass tables combine with gorgeous woodwork to create a space that is modern, but warm. Seating choices include couches and comfy chairs, regular tables and banquets, or a spot at the counter. Next door is the Taqueria 27 coffee shop, where you can get coffee and even boozy libations along with pastries, muffins and such.
There’s already been a lot of buzz about Taqueria 27, and you should know that all the cool kids call it simply “T27.” Almost everything is made in-house, from scratch, and the menu emphasizes (not surprisingly) tacos along with salads, a handful of starters, mole platters and desserts. It’s a relatively small and manageable menu, but each day there are additions such as the guacamole of the day, taco of the day and fish of the day. So, be sure to check out the daily specials, posted next to a wall-size chalkboard illustrated by artist Malia Denali with representations of the extensive 100 percent agave tequilas at T27 (take that, Zion curtain!).
During a taping at T27 of The Let’s Go Eat Show podcast with Bill Allred, we got to sample a guacamole of the day that incorporated pineapple and basil. Wow! I’d never have thought to put either basil or pineapple in guacamole, but it was delicious. More standard guacamole choices at T27 include a roasted-chile version; one with tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, habaneros, cotija and oregano; a traditional guacamole; and a citrusy option with chipotles, oranges and roasted red pepper.
A most irresistible appetizer is queso fundido ($7.49). It’s a gooey, scrumptious mess of melted cheeses—from Oaxaca and Chihuahua—spiked with mole verde and served with fresh corn or flour tortillas. It comes in a small fondue-style vessel kept warm with a candle. The freshly fried tortilla chips with a choice of two salsas (from chipotle, de arbol, crudo or T27 house salsa) is also a good starter, if a bit pricey at $4.99. And I wish that the salsas were available for kicking tacos and such up a notch, not only with an order of chips. However, service at T27 is very accommodating, and I’ll bet they’ll bring you a small portion of salsa for seasoning if you ask.
As mentioned, there’s an extensive tequila selection, which ranges from Sauza Hornitos Plata for $5.50 per 1.5-ounce pour, to extra añejos like Herradura Seleccion Suprema, which will set you back $65 a shot. All of the house cocktails—such as the Brisa, Bloody Maria and T27 Tea—are tequila-based. There’s also a good beer selection, including an array of big 750-ml. beers, and a tiny choice of wines (two, to be exact). If you want to drink wine other than Sauvignon Blanc or Carménère, you might want to make a stop at the liquor store just a few doors up from T27 in Lamplighter Square and BYOB.
T27 tacos aren’t exactly the street-style tacos that you’ll find for a buck apiece. They range in price from $5.99 to $6.49 for an order of two tacos, to $10.99 to $12.49 for four. That’s not cheap, but these aren’t tiny, two-bite tacos, either. The masa tortillas are handmade fresh, continually, in-house. They’re heartier and thicker than typical taqueria tacos. Some people like that (me, for instance). But, I’ve heard some say that the tortillas are too big and thick. You’ll need to decide for yourself.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the taco fillings are scrumptious. I mean, how bad could a duck confit taco be? On one visit, Gardiner made beef-cheek tacos; I’ve never had a taco melt in my mouth before, but this one did. Fresh grouper tacos were also sensational, although I preferred the yummy deep-fried version, lightly dusted with masa, over the straight-ahead grilled one.
Tacos come with varying toppings: the carnitas, for example, is slow-roasted pork with pickled red onion, chicharones and charred tomatillo salsa. The Prime beef carne taco, on the other hand, is adorned with radishes, nopalitos (pickled cactus), avocado and a cilantro-chimichurri sauce. There’s also a wild-mushroom taco made with an assortment of roasted ’shrooms, queso fresco, chimichurri and garnished with crispy fried leek strips.
The moles at T27 are made from scratch (no small feat) and excellent. Mole platters are $10.49 to $13.49 and include two side dishes and tortillas. That’s a good bang for the buck, and customers can select from beef, achiote chicken, pork or grilled portobello to pair with a choice of mole: rojo, verde, Oaxacan or amarillo. I’ve tried them all and loved them all. The side dishes—especially the pinto beans, black beans and lentils—are all first-rate, too.
Taqueria 27 is Todd Gardiner’s labor of love, but I suspect you’re going to love it, too.
1615 S. Foothill Blvd.