April 9, 2019 – The creative masterminds behind Monterey’s hottest upcoming restaurant opening have started offering periodic tastings where lucky guests can experience its exceptional food, hip design and pioneering model for service and staffing.
Cult Taco won’t open officially open until May 1, but the partners—Sarah Kabat-Marcy, John Cox and Michelle Estigoy—and manager Kyle O’Dell see the new place as an extension of the wildly popular brand they have established with Cultura comida y bebida in Carmel, and they want to preserve it by being ready.
They also have another reason to take their time: Cult Taco is experimenting with the whole notion of what it means to be a restaurant. The interior and table setting design, ingredient sourcing and dish development have all been done with the care and attention of the fine dining world, familiar to all the partners.
Their staff is also being intensively trained—but in something quite new, the team includes no cooks and no counter staff, no waiters or bussers. Instead, all of the employees are being trained for roles that are equally front and back of the house, tiered by level of experience, rather than siloed tasks.
“They have to have a passion for cooking and a passion for customer service,” Cox says, noting that thus far, the approach is making for happy and empowered employees, as staffers who had previously worked only with customers have felt like “kids in a candy shop” with the opportunity to run the tortilla maker and prepare tacos, and those who’ve previously only labored behind the scenes have the opportunity—and responsibility—to provide a warm welcome to and feed off the energy of the happy guests.
What’s more, the ostensibly counter service restaurant is entirely cashless—a decision made for safety and sanitary reasons. With the help of hovering staff, guests use brightly colored iPads installed on the counters to view and select menu options and pay themselves, an arrangement that saves the cost of a counter person whose only (and not very satisfying) role would be to punch the buttons for the guest.
The whole experiment is meant to explore ways to provide a highly pleasurable, yet affordable experience for diners, and at the same time, a model for restaurant sustainability as the industry continues to change and costs continue to rise.
“This is a different style, different genre,” Kabat-Marcy says. “We’re taking our experience in fine dining and intertwining it with casual to hopefully create something entirely unique.”
But while the setup may sound like a recipe for alienation or a bottleneck, on the first opening for a practice session, the whole experience of this writer and her family felt extremely smooth and enjoyable.
Guests enter through an enclosed outdoor seating area that is painted, like the walls inside, with vivid and imaginative murals by Oaxacan artist Ricardo Angeles. Overhead, chandeliers made in Oaxaca from recycled materials using sustainable alternative energy sources provide soft lighting and create an atmosphere unlike any taco joint you’ve probably ever visited.
As guests approach the counter, the latest menu is projected on the wall for customers to view options and prices. (The partners considered painting it on, but prices will go up and down with the cost of ingredients.)
Cox says one of the most popular dishes at the first couple of tastings was a scaled down and less theatrical yet totally delicious version of the Queso Fundido that many Cultura guests have become addicted to. Cultura devotees will also find the kind of elevated street tacos they are used to—think Berkshire Pork Carnitas, Wagyu Barbacoa, Chicken Tinga and fish and vegetarian options—and crudos like ceviche and oysters.
At Cult Taco, there are also whole new categories of more casual food that the more high-touch Cultura does not serve, like rich tortas, or Mexican sandwiches, made with carefully sourced and house-made ingredients. There are also varied fresh and sophisticated salad options that would be at home on any fine farm-to-table menu, and prawn cocktails that provide a nod to more traditional Mexican restaurant menus.
To drink, there are freshly made aqua frescas, beer and wine, and for dessert, paletas, or Mexican fruit popsicles.
But back to the guest experience, using the iPad, diners follow dropdown menus in each category, having the chance to see photos of the dishes, ways to customize them, and okay the total before they swipe their card.
The price will be more than what you would spend in a stripped-down taco shop that is more about sustenance than refined flavors or ambience, but what you experience is so such more.
Once ordering is done, you’ll take a seat in the beautiful and stylish dining room. You’ll be greeted and checked on by passing team members, and food will be delivered by the same staff who prepared it, on whimsically illustrated enamel plates from Mexico City.
Thus far, Cox says the response has been extremely positive, and the team is listening carefully to customer feedback for things that can be tweaked. To gather more input and help the staff get comfortable before the officially opening in May, the restaurant will hold a few more surprise practice tastings. So watch Cult Taco’s instagram feed and keep an eye out for the tell tale opening in the restaurant’s metal gate around dinner time. Then poke your head in and enjoy!
“A lot of people feel that modern is the antithesis of soulful,” Cox says. “My mission for Cult Taco is to break down that idea and show that something modern can be artistic and beautiful.”
SARAH WOOD—founding editor and publisher of Edible Monterey Bay—has had a life-long passion for food, cooking, people and our planet.
She planted her first organic garden and cared for her first chicken when she was in elementary school in a farming region of Upstate New York.
Wood spent the early part of her career based in Ottawa, Canada, working in international development and international education. After considering culinary school, she opted to pursue her loves for writing, learning about the world and helping make it a better place by obtaining a fellowship and an MA in Journalism from New York University.
While working for a daily newspaper in New Jersey, she wrote stories that helped farmers fend off development and won a state-wide public service award from the New Jersey Press Association for an investigative series of articles about a slumlord who had hoodwinked ratings agencies and investment banks into propping him up with some early commercial mortgage securitizations. The series led Wood to spend several years in financial journalism, most recently, as editor-in-chief of the leading magazine covering the U.S. hedge-fund industry.
Wood could not be happier to now be writing and editing articles about the Monterey Bay foodshed and the amazing people who help make it so vibrant and diverse. And, after spending much of her adult life gardening on fire escapes, she’s very glad to be planting in the ground again.
Wood lives with her husband, Rob Fisher, a fourth-generation Californian, and young daughter in Carmel Valley. Their favorite meal is a picnic dinner at Pt. Lobos State Reserve.