Yoko Taco was literally years in the making.
“We decided to move forward right around when COVID happened,” said co-owner Jameel Gaskins. He said it took more than a year to deal with permit issues, and progress slowed even further when supply chain weirdness made basic construction materials crazy expensive or impossible to get.
“We also wanted to fit the changing food landscape,” Gaskins said, “so more affordable, and a lot of to-go.”
The restaurant, located in the ground floor of theRUTH apartments at 285 W. 800 South, opened in late April. Gaskins said people have started drifting in before or after a visit to Fisher Brewery down the street, and that some of the apartment residents have already become regulars.
“You see the same faces on a daily basis — people who live and work around here keep coming back,” Gaskins said. “We see people come in, and we already know their order.”
The dining room is modest in size, and the menu is just shy of 20 items. But chef Devon Auchterlonie and sous chef Jaime Ordaz said it’s simple on purpose.
“I wanted something small, and doable, so we could do what we do very well,” Auchterlonie said. “When we opened Yoko Ramen, we were trying a lot of crazy stuff, and it was hard. I’ve learned a lot in five years. You don’t need to have all the bells and whistles. You just need to do things properly. In the same vein, you need to use really good products and local farmers.”
Auchterlonie brought some of the day’s vegetables out from the cooler to show them off: A flat of snowy lion’s mane mushrooms, and foraged ramps.
“Lion’s mane mushrooms are great grilled — they’re very juicy and meaty, and good for your brain, too,” he said. “The ramps are hyper-seasonal. These are from Idaho.”
Ordaz added, “the setup is so nice for veggies. They get cooked on a broiler, not a flat-top grill, so they have a nice crunch and a nice char on them.”
Though they source the occasional out-of-state ingredient, including heirloom Rancho Gordo beans from Napa Valley, a good deal of Yoko’s produce is grown on farmlets in Murray, Sugar House and Rose Park. Because crops rotate out constantly, the menu changes two or three times a week. “And I get bored with doing the same thing over and over,” Auchterlonie said, “so I’ll change the preparation, or order something different.”
But, he added, the “big three — the carnitas, the pork belly, and the chicken — aren’t going anywhere.”
In the next few weeks, Ordaz said, the restaurant will add breakfast items. “I’m excited for that, because it’s like my childhood coming to life — really simple eggs, beans, your choice of meat, grilled,” Ordaz said. “It’s my specialty, for sure.”
Ordaz’s favorite dish right now is the kimchi pico on pork belly, but he was careful to note that Yoko Taco isn’t fusion cuisine.
“We’re selling tacos first,” he said. “We’re not trying to do crazy over-the-top concepts. We’re not putting microgreens on everything. We just want to sell good tacos.”
Yoko Taco does have one dish you won’t see anywhere else in town, though: the pig ear taco.
“You boil them, spray them, you burn all the hair off them, and then pressure-cook them for an hour and a half,” Auchterlonie said. “Then you cool them, chop them and then fry them. There’s a ton of work that goes into this single ingredient, but it tastes delicious. It’s really crispy and chewy and unique.”
In Mexico, Ordaz said, pig ear is generally used in stews, rather than served crispy on a taco. Once people try it, they are fans. One regular who initially tried it with some reticence, he said, now orders it regularly on a torta.
“We’ll put anything on a torta,” Ordaz said. That’s partly because the tortas here are custom-baked for Yoko Taco by Panadería Flores down the street.
Those kinds of relationships, Gaskins said, are key to how Yoko Taco does things. The restaurant is in Salt Lake City’s Granary District, which, like many neighborhoods close to downtown, is becoming increasingly mixed use — with bars, restaurants, shops and apartments side by side. That creates an atmosphere that’s more like a neighborhood and less like an old-school business district.
“We are great friends with the Water Witch owners. We work together with Central Ninth Market. I find that unique, coming from another city,” said Gaskins, who grew up in Philadelphia. “Things may have changed, but back there, it was a lot of competition. Here, there’s room for everybody.”
Gaskins stressed that the pandemic didn’t get the last word on the restaurant’s plans. With the world moving back to a more even keel, Gaskins said Yoko Taco plans to expand in the next year — and apply for one of those coveted Utah liquor licenses.
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