At first glance, La Brisa de Tacombi seems like a simple taqueria. Take a seat at one of the picnic tables for breakfast, lunch or dinner and you begin to notice, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
The iconic, curved 1950s building has floor-to-ceiling windows that face Main Street and wrap eastward. A white-tiled service bar, over- flowing with fresh fruit, greets customers as wait-staff wearing white shirt sleeves deliver pitchers of sparkling red sangria, fresh juices and ice cold Modela beers on old-school restaurant trays. The plywood floors are painted turquoise to match the outdoor picnic tables.
It’s a rare commodity to find a clean outdoor eating area with shady maple trees and great people-watching. Noon, on a cool late-summer day, a poet-type wearing a camel shawl, an orange shirt and tweed cap had his notebooks spread out on a table and took phone calls on the sidewalk between sips of café con leche.
Co-owner Dieter Wiechmann, 36, was at the other end of the restaurant, photographing a plate of lobster tacos. Wiechmann grew up in Switzerland and New York City. Growing up, he says, his family ate most meals out, perhaps giving him a taste of his future. His brother owns two popular restaurants in the Boston area: T.W. Food in Cambridge and Bronwyn in Somerville.
Armed with a degree in design from Parsons, Wiechmann decided to enter the world of advertising. “It just didn’t feel right,” he says.
Then Wiechmann met Dario Wolos, 36, the founder of Tacombi, a Mexican restaurant, while in Majorca, Spain. In 2006, Wolos, who is from Monterrey, Mexico, modified three 1969 Volkswagen vans and began to serve tacos on the Yucatán beach Playa del Carmen.
“VW buses were originally referred to as Combis in Latin America and Germany,” Wolos says. “Taco plus Combi equals Tacombi.”
After immersing himself in the vernacular of Mexican taquerias, Wiechmann is helping to build the Tacombi brand. In doing so, Tacombi is keeping true to the original concept of serving tacos out of a bus. The bus, however, relocated to Tacombi Fonda Nolita, a former garage on Elizabeth Street in New York City three years ago and you can rent one of the buses for your next party.
“Locating in Montauk was a way to bring the Tacombi brand back to the beach,” Wiechmann says. The Montauk location, at 752 Montauk Highway, has a long history. According to Montauk historian Dick White, it began as Camp Welch before “the former Jake Wells house” was moved there from the fishing village after the 1938 hurricane and became the offices of Montauk Beach Company and Montauk Water Company. The house was moved two more times.
In the meantime, Rick Hulse built what he called the Montauk Center in the early 1950s. George Stravopolous and his son Anthony opened Anthony’s Circle Restaurant in the space from 1952 to 1971 when it moved down the street and is still in operation as Anthony’s Pancake House. More recently it had been the Plaza Diner, where the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind filmed a scene in a dark booth.
The space is not dark anymore. As the designer, Wiechmann had to come to grips with a way to portray the “non-design” of a Mexican roadside stand in the most authentic way possible. He did this by gutting the interior and keeping it simple with splashes of bold color in the form of advertising.
In Mexico, Corona, for example, will sponsor a food vendor who gets “serious discounts” and in turn will post Corona signage everywhere possible. Here, most of the logos that decorate La Brisa are Tacombi brands. What is not a Tacombi brand, such as the Modela beer and La Antigua coffee, will soon be switched over, turning design fiction into a marketing reality.
“The heart of the business and passion is tacos,” says Wiechmann. “The design is meant to elevate the food and offer a visual experience.”
“Lupita, hecho con frutas y hierbas” is painted on a white wall near the entrance, printed on every napkin holder and every glass bottle of lime, pineapple, grape and orange soda stacked in wooden crates; Lupita is Tacombi’s beverage brand. Lupita Juices—Verde: apple, celery, kale, pineapple, lime and mint; Purpura: beets, strawberries, ginger and orange; and Naranja: papaya, carrots, pineapple and orange—are made to order. Clear barrels of watermelon and pineapple Lupita Aguas Frescas sit on the service bar.
“Vista Hermosa,” is the brand name of their salsas and tortilla line, and it’s painted in large letters on the back wall. Currently, two types of salsas—the sweet hibiscus chipotle, which goes well with their best-selling crispy fish taco, and the dried red chile de árbol which is sold as “mild” but has quite a kick—are set on the tables for customer use. Tacombi also makes a hot green chile de árbol salsa and an even hotter habanero chile salsa.
Then there is the tiny bottle of the oro negro salsa, the reason they hired chef Luis Aguilar, whom Wiechmann and Wolos ran into while at a wedding in Tulum, Mexico. Wiechmann had tasted a salsa that was so amazing he had to meet the chef, whom it turned out, Wolos already knew. The oro negro, made from blackened habanero peppers and reduced to a tar-like consistency, is best on the lobster, soft-shell crab and shrimp tacos.
The La Brisa menu has about 10 tacos, with a concentration on fish, plus classic chicken mole, pork, steak, eggs and usually a vegetarian selection. Lobster is a new addition due to popular demand. It’s topped with corn and, like all the tacos, is served with two housemade corn tortillas. A single order of tacos is traditionally meant to be shared between two people, hence the two tortillas. Or you can just double up.
Local fluke ceviche, bean and avocado tostada, corn esquites, toasted corn served off-the-cob with lime and chipotle mayonnaise and a watercress, watermelon and queso fresco salad are served as appetizers.
“Everything is made fresh every day from scratch to maintain the tradition of the old lady in Mexico who makes three dishes a day,” says Wiechmann, “Tacombi is about home-style Mexican food, not about the owner or chef.”
The cocktail menu is just as tight as the food options. Wiechmann says a light German-style lager or pilsner goes best with tacos because they get the coldest and are not too strong or sugary. Soon, Tacombi will bottle their own beer, but for now La Brisa customers have a choice of light or dark Modela, served in the bottle or as a chelada over ice with fresh lime juice, or a michelada with lime juice, habanero salsa and a salted rim.
Three types of mescal, from El Tinieblo ranch in northern Mexico, are served either in a shot glass, to be sipped before and after meal, or in an eight-ounce compartido to be shared. Traditionally, a donkey would crush the piña from the agave plant before a village farmer would cook, mash, ferment and distill the smoky-flavored drink, known to the Mayans as something mystical.
On the sweeter side, the Paloma, Tacombi’s take on the margarita, is made with fresh grapefruit, and their piña colada harks back to 1960s Acapulco. The cóctel de la semana switches it up every week.
Don’t let the short menu fool you, either. Tacombi has big plans. In addition to bottling their own beer and packaging their own coffee, they are currently working on other New York City locations and looking to expand their website so that they can sell their products, such as the salsas and organic tortillas.
While in Montauk, Wiechmann discovered surfing as a way to relax. “I became kind of addicted,” he says. Rising at 4 a.m. every day, before the sun and before working on the Tacombi brand, he heads to Montauk’s most famous breaks.
One thing is for sure. Montauk has certainly become addicted to La Brisa de Tacombi.
La Brisa, 752 Montauk Highway, Mon- tauk, 631.669.8338, will reopen for the 2014 season on May 2.