Just ask Rocco Mangel, the owner of the Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar restaurant that will open at University Town Center March 6.
Before Mangel opened his first Rocco’s Tacos 15 years ago in West Palm Beach, he went on a quest to find the best ways to build an authentic Mexican taco. Several trips to Mexico were part of the quest, along with trips to California.
“I didn’t want to open the typical Mexican restaurant, you know, with a pinata, a skeleton on the wall, where you would be playing the Mexican Hat Dance. So I decided to go to Mexico, buy furniture, fixtures and equipment for my restaurant. I am half Italian and half Jewish, but I wanted to embrace the Mexican culture.”
He also found the simplicity in cooking tacos.
“You have homemade corn tortillas, and they are meant to fall apart,” he said. “You have a protein, and on the streets of Mexico, they will eat anything, like tongue.”
Going to California
Those trips to Mexico weren’t enough, though. He decided to go to California to learn firsthand the best way to make tacos. He decided to work on taco trucks.
“I went from San Francisco to San Diego, a whole laundry list of places,” he said. “The Mexican food truck scene was pretty much just happening. The street tacos in Los Angeles were where I brought back most of my ideas. It was a corn tortilla, a protein, flavor in the meat, onions, cilantro. That’s it. That was strong.”
He used that base knowledge to launch Rocco’s Tacos, and it has worked well. The Sarasota location will be his 10th restaurant.
Eventually, though, it became apparent that not everyone is a fan of simple. Although he is not a big fan of cheese on his tacos, he understands many of customers are.
“We have had to adapt,” he said. “We didn’t have sour cream, we had (Mexican) crema. We started to get so many requests for sour cream. People like to do things with tacos. Birria tacos come with broth and you dip it. People like pickled, red onion.
“It’s a tough business and if you don’t evolve, if we don’t change, the world will pass us by. I am very humbled we are still here.”
In Sarasota, customers can get chili braised beef brisket tacos or vegan mushroom tacos, along with all kinds of traditional favorites.
Mangel, who lives in Palm Beach County, said the Sarasota restaurant will have a new look for his chain.
“We went with a little different design,” he said. “We will have a ton of stuff from Mexico, but not as much as in our other stores.”
The outside of the restaurant is lined with seating, including a substantial bar area for those who like to watch the world go past.
The menu itself will offers lots of tweaks to traditional Mexican favorites.
“When we opened our first restaurant, we called ourselves the ‘Original Guac-ster.’ Of course, we were not the innovator of the taco,” he said. “The perception is that the Americanized version is ground beef, sour cream, cheese, and you have a taco. I went to 60 to 70 Mexican restaurants across the country. What we wanted, was a combination. A little out of Mexico, and a little out of America. We have the most authentic taco we can have to the American palette.
Change is good
“But five years ago, people were saying, ‘This is the best,’ and then all of a sudden, people are eating kale. Things change. We are constantly changing our brand. We put our own spin on it. At one point, we had meatball tacos. Pork belly was a good thing.
“It still comes down to four basic proteins — chicken, fish, beef and pork.”
Mangel loves the outdoor seating where his customers can try the many tequilas that will be offered.
“We have this tremendous outdoor patio,” he said. “If you look at UTC, our landlord (Benderson Development) delivered a nice space. My restaurant stands alone. I spent a lot of money on our design and decor. I want to be the shepherd and not the sheep. I brought in a lighting expert. Why sacrifice what I want to evolve to being?"
The restaurant has 4,200 square feet inside and 2,000 square feet outside.
Workers were putting the finishing touches on construction this week.
Mangel has been known to do a tequila dance in his restaurants where he pours tequila into the mouths of patrons as he dances across the floor. He said during COVID, he had to get away from that practice, but he just might renew the tradition on March 6 at his new restaurant’s opening.
“It was such a touchy subject during the pandemic, with everyone wearing a face mask. I am a real guy, and I will kiss your baby. I used to get on the bar in platform shoes. A lot of people would be yelling, ‘Can I get a shot?’"
Mangel used to be first in line for tequila, but he hasn’t had a drink in seven years since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I have evolved now as well,” he said. “I am married, I have two kids, a 9-year-old and a 9-month-old. It is a different world. I have to balance my time.”
He has enjoyed doing hands-on work in his new restaurant.
“I have had more fun than I have had in a long time,” he said. “I lived in Sarasota for a month, and put a lot of blood and sweat in there. You know, this is MS month and my biggest symptom from that is fatigue. But I probably am more active than I should be. The medication that I am on has kept me feeling pretty good. And I might be tired just because I am tired.
“I push myself to be strong. When I came out of the MS closet, I put myself in uncomfortable situations. I am intense.”
He said his No. 1 problem coming up to the grand opening has been hiring his staff, but he is ready for the opening.
The new restaurant, as well as his others, have “aggressive” happy hours from 4-7 p.m., seven days a week.
He won’t have live music at the beginning but that could change.
“We’re a bar, not a nightclub,” he said. “But we will have a DJ, turn it up, have fun.”
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.