Going global at taco asylum

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“Non-traditional tacos with global ingredients,” is Executive Chef/Partner Greg Daniels’ description of the food at taco asylum in Costa Mesa, California.

Chef Greg Daniels
Chef Greg Daniels

Chef Greg Daniels loves being a chef and can now afford to be one. The California native, 34, attended college, did some writing and edited the school newspaper, then got a job in an office. “At 21 I talked my way into a second job as bartender, but fell in love with the camaraderie of the restaurant industry,” Daniels said.

Executive Chef/Partner Daniels opened Taco Asylumrecently in Costa Mesa, California, his second restaurant with partners Wil Dee and Ace Patel.

Daniels always loved to cook and needed a creative outlet. At 27 he decided to master the finer points at the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. Still bartending on the side during school, he sought to work with the best chefs in Orange County such as Pascal Olhatsand Andrew Sutton of Napa Rose. “I got the job with Andrew (Sutton) and enjoyed it but after three months my wife said this isn’t working, we can’t make our house payments,” Daniels said.

taco asylum
taco asylum

He returned to bartending working on and off with now-partner Dee. “We wanted to open something together. The first one fell through,” Daniels explained.

About a year and a half ago they opened Haven Gastropub with third partner, Patel. Chef Daniels moved back into the kitchen. Successful from the beginning Haven focuses on craft beers with 14 on tap and over 100 bottled or canned. The food is European with modern American twists.

Just a couple months old, taco asylum came about with the wish to bring the same quality to fast-casual fare, not compromising on ingredients, flavor or attention to detail. “People can get lunch fast,” Daniels said.

Customers are a random mix-old and young, suits to sweats. The location in the CAMP, a retail area with a bohemian nature vibe, is a suitable home for a menu of atypical adventurous tacos.

The menu consists of nine tacos with ingredients such as grilled octopus, lamb and wild mushrooms. The short rib taco with pickled red onion, salsa verde, cotija cheese and cilantro sells the most. The Corazon with confit beef heart, pickled turnips and harissa (made in-house) moves less.

Other popular variations include octopus, wild mushroom and lamb with ratatouille.

The best deal is the flight of eight in three-inch tortillas for $18.

Another great deal is happy hour-2:00 to 6:00 and 9:00 to 11:00 Monday through Friday, tacos cost a dollar less. At the same time draft beer goes for $3 and $2 off cans.

Beer taps
Six varieties of craft beer are on tap at taco asylum.

Designing the menu Daniels started with the protein and looked for, “Ingredients that play together nicely.” He also included texture balance, crunchy and succulent in each taco.

“The octopus has a Mediterranean theme. Grilled octopus and oregano is often served with pasta,” Daniels said. A happy accident occurred when the octopus was left on the stove too long. Afraid it was overcooked, he realized it was really tender and better.

“Our pork belly is like the (Vietnamese) Banh Mi sandwich with pickled onion, daikon and cilantro.”

“The Corazon, beef heart, is a challenge to get people to order. We cook it in duck fat sous vide (water bath) for 24 hours,” Daniels said. “We make our own harissa.”

Making everything from scratch is not an economic decision for Daniels. “I feel if I know how to make it, it’s going to be better. It won’t have preservatives, and will require the use of culinary technique. The craft of cooking is my passion,” he said.

Daniels and his partners were approached to open another Haven Gastropub by the management of the CAMP. “The only space that was available was 1,000 square feet. We declined due to size,” Daniels said. They were contacted again and asked if they wanted to do anything else. A brainstorming session led to a taco joint with good beer and cool music.

“I never even considered doing traditional tacos. If I had, we’d probably have an easier time bringing people in the door; however I thought we could be different,” Daniels explained. Regular tacos are everywhere already.

“Here we are with octopus, beef heart and paneer tacos. They are all inspired by different cuisines around the world, and I had fun coming up with them,” Daniels continued. “Obviously, we want to run a profitable business, but we want to do it on our own terms. If we did everything the same way that everyone else did, this wouldn’t be any fun.”

Taco Asylum
The CAMP
2937 S. Bristol St,
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
714-922-6010

All tacos
All tacos

Menu highlights

Grilled octopus $5 (see recipe)

kalamata olives – oregano – feta – tomatoes

Lamb $5

Olive tapenade – ratatouille- mache

Curried paneer $5

raita ­- tomato chutney

Duck $6 (see recipe)

camembert – dijon creme fraiche – purple fingerling chips