Take Korean-style marinated beef and put it in a corn tortilla and you have the latest trend in fusion food, popularized by the Kogi fleet of trucks that started selling its tacos in Los Angeles in 2008.
The Asian-Latin combination is also part of the inspiration for Taqueria Tsunami, a two-unit concept in Atlanta that has achieved both critical and financial success.
Chef-owner Scott Kinsey opened the first Taqueria Tsunami location, a 115-seat restaurant in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood, last July, followed by a second location, with 100 seats, in the suburb of Marietta in November.
Kinsey is a former corporate chef for Romano’s Macaroni Grill and, most recently, Hooter’s of America. “Hooters was a fun environment and a corporate environment, but from a culinary side it did not fulfill what I was looking for and what I needed,” he said of his transition.
However, his position at both Hooter’s and Macaroni Grill parent Brinker International did require that he travel to Asia and Latin America a fair amount. “Every time I got to go on one of those trips, I’d stay a couple extra days and get to know the local cuisine,” he said.
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That experience, and the fact that Korean tacos were doing so well in Southern California and New York, were what pushed him to open Taqueria Tsunami.
“I wanted to create an offering where we take local, fresh ingredients and unique international ingredients that everyday American households are starting to get exposed to, and make exciting food out of it,” Kinsey said.
An example of the offering he describes is Taqueria Tsunami's $3.50 shrimp tempura taco, for which batter-fried shrimp is served in a grilled flour tortilla with hoisin lime aioli and topped with a slaw of cabbage, carrots, bell peppers and cilantro tossed in rice wine vinegar and sesame oil.
Kinsey recently served the shrimp tempura tacos along with avocado egg rolls at the Taste of Marietta, where it won the award for best international cuisine.
The egg rolls are made with diced avocado mixed with red diced onions, chopped cilantro, salt, pepper and ground ginger. That mixture is wrapped in an egg roll wrapper, deep-fried and served with a honey-spiked Thai chile sauce and a dressing of roasted jalapeños, roasted tomato salsa and roasted poblanos puréed with house-made ranch dressing. Two of them are $5.
Another popular item at the restaurant is the $3.50 Thai chicken taco, for which chicken tenders are grilled and basted in a teriyaki sauce and served in a tortilla with shredded cabbage dressed in peanut sriracha sauce, and topped with cilantro and sesame seeds.
Kinsey takes that Latin-Asian fusion theme to his drink program as well, with beverages such as the $8.50 ginger-pineapple margarita or a $6.95 sake sangria that's made by spiking red sangria with the Japanese rice spirit.
Kinsey said both locations of the restaurant are doing well financially and critically. The Buckhead location does about 2,000 covers per week, and the Marietta restaurant does 3,200, both with an average per-person check of between $12 and $12.50.
Kinsey said his customers had to be guided a bit through the food.
“Some people are hesitant [when they come in], but none of them leave with that hesitation because we’ve educated our servers — let them taste the ingredients and let them know what they are and where they’re from and how they’re served," he said. “Our success has come from really taking the time to educate our servers, who are the first line to the customers."
Kinsey said he’s already looking at two more locations in the Atlanta area. “We’ve already been approached by several people who are interested in opening Taqueria Tsunami in other cities,” he added. But he said he’s not ready for that yet.
“My focus is on the quality of the food and ingredients. Unfortunately, when you focus on franchising [first], you can lose some of that.
“Once we get to a point where we have all of our ducks in a row, we’d be open to franchising,” he noted.