Fast food is dead. With comings and goings at all hours and strange visitors throughout
the night, many suspect foul play. But continually falling revenues, chronically unstaffed
registers and a cultural reputation in decline lead others to point to a more self-inflicted
lethality. (Still others maintain it died long ago and has been running on first-rate preservatives since.) "People don't want fast food anymore," declares Malin Parker, founder of Screaming Goat Taqueria and one of the prime suspects. “It’s gross, we feel terrible after we eat it and it’s not good for the environment.” Either way, a Fee-Fi-Fo-Foodie giant has fallen and the authorities are scrambling.  Fast casual is booming in a Sarasota saturated by fine dining locales and Millennials especially are on the hunt for the next new thing to pick up the mantle. In short, profit motive for the murder stands at an all-time high, and the market points to something chef-driven and worldly—tacos. And with a recent proliferation of taco offerings on the Sarasota menu, SRQ rounds up the new usual suspects.

Photo 1 

Tex-Mex Tornados at Wicked Cantina

When Janice and Mike Dolan brought tacos to Bradenton Beach with Wicked Cantina, they committed to the Tex-Mex tradition they fell in love with living in Austin, TX. And with the new location off North Tamiami Trail, the Dolans are doubling down and spreading the Tex-Mex gospel in Sarasota. “It makes sense,” says Mike of the most recent taco wave, giving credit largely to the foodie form’s versatility. “There are so many options, it’s whatever you like.” In that spirit, while the hungry masses will find the “true” Tex-Mex taco in the eponymous Wicked Taco—seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomato, pico and shredded cheese in a hard shell and drizzled with Wicked Cantina’s beguilingly spicy and seductive signature Wicked sauce—Florida-inspired variations like the shrimp tacos become a regular best-seller too. Served on a flour tortilla with slaw, pickled onions, cilantro and chipotle aioli, the shrimp explodes with just the right amount of succulence. “If we told you how, we’d have to kill you,” says Mike. “Very lightly fried,” replies Janice, though the exact makeup of the seasoned breading remains a mystery. And even with carnitas street tacos (slow-roasted pork shoulder, onions and cilantro on corn tortillas) on the menu for traditionalists, the presence of breakfast tacos (including migas) on the menu firmly re-establishes the joint’s Tex-Mex bona fides. “We’re trying to stay true to the Texas in us,” says Mike, and for him the need goes beyond personal history and into personal taste—he needs the heat that Tex-Mex brings and he hasn’t found it elsewhere. “Put Tex-Mex next to Mexican,” he says, “and it tastes like they forgot the spices.”

Photo 2

Austin Authentic at Screaming Goat Taqueria

"I just want to make people happy with my food,"says Parker, whose Screaming Goat Taqueria opened last month down in Gulf Gate. A love letter to Latin street food, Parker keeps it authentic by making everything from scratch, from the tortillas and toppings to the agua frescas that wash it all down. “I’m putting 100% into my food,” he says, and though it may arrive on paper boats, the taste belies his 5-star approach. The eponymous goat, served barbacoa-style, marinates in Parker’s chipotle pepper seasoning before braising for at least four hours and falling apart. Additional proteins include house-made chorizo and the Yucatan traditional cochinita pibil, pork slow-roasted in banana leaves. Lentils, quinoa and sweet potato create a vegan option. From there, diners have their go at a colorful array of toppings ranging from the simple and traditional—cilantro, onions and lime—to Parker’s own guacamole, Screaming Goat Farmer’s Cheese, sweet corn salsa or pickled red onions. And to top it all off (literally), the salsa bar offers seven of Screaming Goat’s own signature salsas, with names like Solar Flare, Fire-Charred Tomatillo, Cilantro Chimichurri and Roasted Red Pepper. Reflecting the chef’s personal preference for smoky salsas, many feature charred vegetables prominently. And from a Screaming Goat perspective, the taco trend makes perfect sense to Parker. “People are looking for something a lot more chef-driven,” he says, but they still want inexpensive and global, healthy and creative. Tacos fit. “At the end of the day it’s just good food—vibrant flavors, vibrant colors and actually very healthy.”

Photo 3

Texas Troublemaker at Brick's Smoked Meats

They're as proud of  their Texas heritage as they areof the famous brisket
that used to sell out at the Farmer’s Market every weekend. “And you can’t have Texas without some tacos,” says Brick’s chef Keith Doherty. And seeing the influence that Latin American flavors and cuisines have had in the fiercely independent Lone Star State, he’s not surprised to see tacos trending in Sarasota now. “It’s the best handheld meal in the world,” he says, but key to its recent rise is a broader understanding of what a taco can be in the hands of different chefs and traditions. Naturally, at Brick’s, that means throwing some signature brisket into the mix. Arguably the star of the show, the taco concept molds around the meat, embracing horseradish sauce and fried onions for a flavor profile more reminiscent of a steakhouse sandwich as opposed to classic Latin street fare. “People realize that a taco doesn’t have to be one thing,” says Doherty. “It’s worldly and you can do whatever you want with it.” Case in point, the already-famous Bacon Burnt Ends Tacos. Thick slab bacon sliced into chunks gets seasoned and smothered in house-made “sweet pea sauce”—sugar, chili powder, three types of peppers—and barbecue sauce. Slow-smoked, the flavorful mass caramelizes all around the bacon, creating sweet and smoky little bacon nuggets. Served atop jicama slaw and under a hearty drizzle of creamy cheddar cheese, Doherty finishes with a final indulgence—a tortilla coated and crisped with cilantro and hard Mexican cheese.

Photo 4

Downhome Desperado at PBNT

At PBnT (Pizza, Burgers 'N' Tacos),the taco holds a place in the sun next to that most iconic and American of fast casual meals—the hamburger—a sure sign of how high its star has risen. Designed to have something for everyone, the restaurant gives burgers, tacos and pizzas equal billing on the menu in order to stifle those old battles over where to get lunch. Similarly, the taco section itself holds enough variety for multiple taco traditions. “What we’ve done is meld the genres,” says PBnT Executive Chef Nils Tarantik (also of Duval’s and the newly opened Element, right next door to PBnT). For those looking to scratch that street taco itch, Tarantik’s From the Streets tacos loads shredded cabbage, salsa verde, queso fresco and cilantro onto a corn tortilla with the diner’s choice of pork or chicken—both marinated overnight and slow-smoked for hours—or seasoned beef. But the seasoned beef may work best with the classic Tex-Mex offering of PBnT’s Taco the Town taco. Served with lettuce, tomato and shredded cheese, layer it into a crunchy taco shell and be transported straight back to taco night with the family. “That’s really what food is all about,” says Tarantik, whether the memory evoked is family night around the table or a late night in the plaza with a significant other and some street tacos. “It’s piquing that nostalgia.” For the vegetarian crowd, the Taco-tarian swaps citrus rice, black beans and veggie salad for meat, and for the carb-averse the taco bowl offers a savory solution. It’s all about meeting the market, says Tarantik, in terms of content and style. “Fast casual is growing fast,” he says. “People don’t want to sit down for a full=service meal, but they want that quality.”

East Coast Eats at Atlantic Beer & Oyster

It may seem odd to find tacos in a place called Atlantic Beer and Oyster, but under the guidance of Chef Matt Mangone it seems like a natural fit. The key, he says, is to understand that not only are the new crowds looking for variety, they’re also looking for a culinary experience to have with their friends. Tacos hit the sweet spot for both. “You’re never stuck to just one thing when you order tacos,” says Mangone, “and you can order many different types to share.” Loaded up with seafood options, the Rock Shrimp Tacos pair the naturally sweet and plump meat of the lightly seasoned rock shrimp with charred pineapple aioli and roasted corn, while the lobster taco lets the Atlantic vibe ring loud and clear with minimal interference from some more of the pineapple aioli. The traditional fish taco, served blackened or fried (the former is recommended), gets its own zesty overhaul with a balance of triple citrus slaw and watermelon pico. Rounding out the menu back on the familiar side, the steak taco features chimichurri-marinated steak seared and served with pickled onions and queso palmita. Tacos provide a tasty terra nullius both familiar and exotic that leaves the diner open to new flavors. 

Florida Flavor at Tamiami Tacos

"It's a Millennial thing and it has to do with fast and fresh," says Chef Robert Wasley of Tamiami Tacos. And in addition to fast and fresh, he says, it has to be affordable for Millennials too, and easily mobile is a plus. Some would say Millennials are looking for a unicorn; Wasley says they just want a quality taco. Opening Tamiami Tacos in March 2017, Wasley quickly built a devoted following in both Sarasota and Bradenton by nailing all three criteria with his $1 tacos. Exceedingly affordable, Wasley builds the taco in front of his customer, filling the flour tortilla with whatever options they choose. It’s quick, it’s transparent and it bridges the gap between chef and diner like that other Millennial favorite—the food truck. Proteins include beef, chicken and pork, the former prepared with Wasley’s chili seasoning and a bit of chorizo thrown into the mix, and the latter given a two-day chipotle marinade and then slow-smoked for 12 hours before selling out. On Friday, fish tacos make the cut, injecting a little more local flavor into the operation. With fresh vegetables sourced from local markets offering an array of complementary taco toppings from cilantro and red onion to cabbage or house-made mango chutney, flavor combinations “run the gamut,” and Wasley encourages diners to try one of his three homemade ranch dressings—chipotle, avocado and the newly introduced roasted poblano ranch. For meals on the move, Wasley takes advantage of the taco’s “convenient” packaging for the Tamiami Tacos Boat Bag, which includes four tacos, two bags of chips and two drinks in an insulated bag ready to take out on the water.