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That’s a taco? Gourmet chefs put new spin on old favorite

Ingredients inspired by Jamaica, Thailand and more

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 12:01 am

Move past the shredded lettuce, stringy cheese and sour cream. A bold new class of chefs is taking the simple taco and giving it a radical redo.

They're using pineapple-mango salsa with fresh grilled tilapia. Marinated chicken comes together with lime juice and panang curry for a Thai-themed taste.

Korean chili paste, Asian pears and apples garnish a spicy-sweet pork taco.

A longtime staple of grade-school cafeterias and late-night fast food has evolved to please more refined palates. Barbecue shrimp, spicy buffalo chicken and grilled portobello mushrooms with red peppers have all popped up from vendors throughout Indianapolis.

The easy-to-hold tortilla and seemingly infinite number of ingredients make for an increase in the popularity of the taco.

“People find tacos so easy. It's portable; you can carry it around. They aren't simple, in terms of ingredients, but they're easy to eat,” said Ryan Krcmarich, owner of Tacos Without Borders. “I like the idea that you can get flavors, vegetables and sauces from three different continents all at the same time.”

Inside the stainless steel kitchen of Tacos Without Borders' food truck, Krcmarich plays mad scientist.

He fuses worldwide flavors such as curry and Vietnamese sweet chili, then covers it in a vinegary slaw and tomatillo sauce, with grated cotija on top.

His Jamaican jerk taco features chicken marinated for two days in a signature sauce. The Mexican shredded beef is slow-cooked in a broth of tomato, tomatillo and chili sauce.

A Nigerian-inspired taco uses meat such as chicken, then flavors it with North African hot chili paste harisa and berbere sauce, another 17-ingredient spicy sauce.

“You can make a taco pretty much from anywhere over the world. Every country has their own kind of tortilla bread, and you can fill it with whatever you want,” he said.

Krcmarich opened his mobile taco stand in 2010, taking advantage of the rising popularity of food trucks throughout the country. Taking his cue from the original trucks selling street tacos on the West Coast, he chose tacos because they're easy to eat on the go.

The goal was to use the familiar form of the taco to get people to try dishes they'd otherwise never eat, Krcmarich said.

“I'd always been a person who had tweaked stuff a little bit. I like simplicity, see what other people are offering and add my own twist,” he said.

But even simple tacos can have an exotic taste.

Longtime lunch hotspot Roscoe's Tacos has been serving handheld pockets of meat, beans, tomatoes and cheese in Greenwood for almost 20 years.

The business was opened by Rita and Roscoe Townsend in 1996, playing off of Roscoe Townsend's favorite style of food.

A recently opened Franklin branch has carried on the original vision of simple, hearty tacos and expanded it to a new crowd.

“Subs and pizza are so available to you, people are getting burned out. There are not enough taco places around,” co-owner Colt Key said. “If you want a sub, there's 10 of them. If you want tacos, there's basically us.”

Key, who opened the location with his brother, Grant, had never worked in Mexican food before. Colt Key is a finance manager for Ray Skillman Auto Center, while Grant Key owns a landscaping company.

But they saw an opportunity to fill a void in Franklin. They wanted to provide a quick, hardy meal for workers who only had limited time to eat lunch or dinner. Tacos proved to be an ideal item.

Shredded chicken and beef are simmered in wide pans, taking in the flavor of the chili powder, garlic and other spices that Roscoe's Tacos has used since the beginning.

Vegetarians can go with a mix of black beans and rice.

Since opening Feb. 3, the restaurant has served 200 or more people every day.

“It's been great sitting by the door and hearing people say, 'That was a great taco. I really enjoyed it,'” Colt Key said.

Simple exteriors

In a bright yellow shack off of Broad Ripple's main drag, La Chinita Poblana serves up a tacos containing skirt steak marinated in red curry and one with Japanese eggplant with a carrot-ginger-habanero dressing. Pan-seared tofu topped with miso habanero salsa gives a sharp kick with each bite.

Owner George Munoz, a veteran Indianapolis chef, was inspired to open an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant by an old legend of a kidnapped Indian princess taken to live in Mexico. The girl was eventually admired and revered.

The tastes he creates echo the Indian influence. Tamerind, cumin and curry — all popular in Indian food — are used as seasonings and in marinades.

Nearby, Monon Food Company has a slate of out-of-the-ordinary tacos that include pork marinated in Moroccan spices, steak with bleu cheese and chicken with feta cheese and carrots.

That's the beauty of the taco — it's so versatile.

“This whole trend started with Korean tacos out West. If you can do Korean tacos, you could do it from all over the world — Chinese, Malaysian, Japan. It's endless,” Krcmarich said.